In a word: better. This was a spirited performance, and one in which the pampered brats of the Premier League showed the world that yes, they can in fact play as a team. The scoreline flattered a Slovenian side who were thoroughly outclassed, and but for a man of the match performance from Samir Handanovic in goal England might have scored a hatful.
While a jingoistic media called for the team to focus on those tiresome, stereotypical Three Lions attributes of passion and commitment, England actually went further than that, with a slick display of pass-and-move that unlocked the Slovenian back line time and again. Eyebrows were raised over Capello’s inclusion of Jermain Defoe and James Milner but he was proven right in both cases, the former converting the latter’s inch-perfect cross for the game’s only goal, and both working tirelessly in pressing the Slovenian defence in possession.
It was a shaky start. Barely two minutes had passed when Glen Johnson tried to control a pass and the ball bounced off the sole of his boot and out for a throw in. Minutes later John Terry played a soft square pass that slowed up on a mess of a pitch and was intercepted in a dangerous position that the Slovenian attack wasted. So far, so England.
After ten minutes England created their first half-chance after a decent spell of possession that served to boost the confidence of team and its support alike. Glen Johnson played an outrageous raking 40-yard ball from right back to Wayne Rooney, who had peeled off to the left side. He cut inside his man and chipped a pass towards the back post where Steven Gerrard awaited, and it took a fine last-ditch header from a Slovenian defender to deny England a first shot on target.
England were moving the ball well and at pace. Steven Gerrard, for the most part, held his position on the left wing and Ashley Cole was bombing outside him with heartening regularity. One run sent him scurrying down the left wing where he danced past two defenders and cut back to Rooney, but his through ball had slightly too much on it, Handanovic out smartly to collect before an onrushing Lampard.
While working diligently on the right wing without the ball, James Milner looked terrified every time he was in possession, showing a rather lumpen first touch and a poor final ball. Twice in the opening twenty minutes Rooney could see Milner in space outside him but chose a different option. Milner would prove him wrong soon after in setting up what turned out to be the winner.
There was a hint of David Beckham in the way Milner nudged the ball in front of him, not beating a man but creating a yard of space, just enough to whip over a cross. Prior to Capello’s provisional 30-man squad being whittled down to the final 23, Theo Walcott had spoken of the work he had been doing with Beckham on the training ground; Beckham had told him not to cross to a man but an area.
“He has always told me to deliver the ball into the space and if there is no-one there, it is not your problem,” he said. “You need to just put the ball in the space and someone should get on the end of it.” Milner did precisely that here, whipping the ball into space behind the back four for an airborne Jermain Defoe to volley home. There was an element of luck to the goal: replays showed Defoe had actually scored with his shin, and Handanovic got one hand to it, then the other, before it went in. But no matter: England had their lead.
It was nearly doubled just three minutes later with a Milner cross that was a carbon copy of the first, but Handanovic was out quickly to push the ball clear. Then Gerrard played in Defoe who crashed a shot from the edge of the area that the keeper could only bundle clear. Rooney collected the rebound with his back to goal and four defenders around him, and threaded a wonderful pass through them all from which Steven Gerrard’s shot was just saved.
The pace of the game sagged a little as England sought to ensure they went in at half time with their lead secure. Any fanciful notion of playing keepball for fifteen minutes was repeatedly quashed as Gareth Barry gave the ball away time and again. The Manchester City player can be excused as he regains full fitness, but a better side would have made more of his repeated wastefulness. Germany will not be so forgiving.
England continued to press and Jermain Defoe nearly doubled his tally immediately after half time. Rooney chased a loose ball and the keeper left his area trying to prevent a corner. He could not do so and Rooney reacted well, taking the corner quickly, the ball eventually finding Defoe who could only guide the ball just wide of the post with the outside of his foot.
Defoe did put the ball in the net again shortly afterwards, but both he and Rooney were offside. Rooney still seems somewhat laboured in his movement and is perhaps still lacking confidence. Once again he ignored Milner outside him, tried to shoot with three defenders close to him, and missed the ball entirely. Moments later he was clean through but rather rushed his shot and it clipped the post, with replays showing that but for the faintest of touches from the tip of Handanovic’s right glove, it would have gone in.
Handanovic’s best save of the night came from John Terry. Barry floated a corner to the back post and the deposed England captain thumped a header downward that the Slovenian keeper – who plies his trade at Udinese but has surely won himself a few suitors after this display – miraculously got a firm enough hand to the ball to push it behind for another corner.
If Handanovic was doing the fancy stuff, his opposite number was quietly efficient. David James did not have an awful lot to do but did it all very well. He has been openly critical of the Jabulani ball but seemed to get on rather well with it here, holding just about every ball that was sent his way. His defence were solid enough; all made individual errors but team-mates were quick to cover and snuff out the danger.
Despite creating so many chances the score remained at 1-0, and the BBC’s infuriating lack of consideration of the implications of a Slovenian equaliser, or of either USA or Algeria scoring in the other group C match was pathetic, and a welcome distraction from the increasingly tense atmosphere on the pitch. Nothing warms the cockles quite like having a good swear at Mark Lawrenson.
Slovenia waited until three quarters of the game was gone to commit men forward and have a go at England, but the back four were resolute when called upon. In one terrifying spell Terry blocked a shot, then dived headfirst to try and block the rebound, missing by inches. Luckily Glen Johnson was backing him up and got a foot to the ball, but it fell to Valter Birsa, Slovenia’s best player against USA and Algeria. Thankfully his shot sailed wide.
Capello freshened things up, Joe Cole finally making his bow, replacing Wayne Rooney as a precaution against the knock on the ankle he had taken minutes earlier. James Milner was visibly flagging but Capello replaced Defoe with Emile Heskey. If the plan looked simplistic – knock it up to the big wardrobe up front, get Cole and Milner onto the second ball and run for the corner flag, my pretties! – it worked perfectly.
At first Cole was clearly looking for a second but his naiveté was pointed out to him and he was soon by the corner flag with James Milner, winning a succession of throws and free kicks in a three-minute spell which would have had us all spitting feathers had France done it, but no-one was about to complain here.
The final whistle went and the reaction of players and staff alike was heartening. Steven Gerrard smiled for the first time since accepting the armband, and Capello’s exuberant reaction was a sight to see. Slovenia left the pitch shattered as news of Landon Donovan’s late strike for the USA consigned them to third place and a flight home. For England’s players, though, you sense this World Cup has only just begun.