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All Things Footie | Tuesday, June 22 | Jordan

Nothing compares to Roon

Maybe I’m an acute sufferer of Rooneyitis, but after England’s first goal last night—as John Motson and Joe Royle went on and on about the part Lampard, Owen and Scholes played—all I could think about was how fabulous Rooney’s header was. Fabulous, mature, visionary; as tidy as any Bergkamp through-ball or Zola flick. Genius. Then he goes and smashes in a rocket from 25 yards, and quite frankly (as if my admiration were not already approaching its limit) I was in awe of young Wayne. His second goal was pretty special too; a great run (and a wonderful one-two with Michael Owen) followed by a fantastic eyeball-dummy to the ‘keeper and a cool finish to the near post—glorious.

Things didn’t start well, but Croatia’s early goal was perhaps the kick up the backside England needed to stir them into action. It’ll be a difficult goal to analyse from Sven’s point of view; both the Goalkeeper, John Terry and Ashley Cole are all potential targets for criticism, but in truth it was simply a combination of a good dead-ball from Croatia and bad luck from England. Collina should have punished Croatia for the blatent push on Ashley Cole that led him to knock the ball towards goal—perhaps James should have come for the cross—either way it’s all academic now, but unlike England’s other set-piece failures this tournament, I don’t think they should worry too much about this one.

It looked nervy for a while after the goal, but as soon as England settled it was clear who was going to win the match. Calm, assured defending—another marvellous, dominating performance from Sol Campbell, and Gary Neville was excellent too—some nice build up play from Lampard, Beckham, Cole and Rooney; all that England lacked was a final ball. Gerrard and Scholes were very poor with their distribution and spent most of the first half giving the ball away. Unusually, Gerrard also seemed completely oblivious of his teammates on numerous occasions, choosing the difficult option over a simple ball. Owen was again miles off the pace, every time he received the ball he spent three touches chasing it back towards his own half, and was just as culpable as the midfield for slowing the team down.

For once, Beckham’s performance last night will go completely unsung. The truth is that England’s captain was excellent on the right side of midfield—he barely wasted a ball, and spent all night being fouled by just about every Croatian player on the pitch. The two or three times he moved inside he dictated play for the time he was there, playing clever balls into unexpected spaces and finding Rooney with slide-rule pass after slide-rule pass. Beckham was not the only player who benefited from moving inside; Scholes had a poor game overall, but his constant running and desire to get in the box paid dividends, and thanks to Rooney’s mercurial vision, he got his first goal in 30 Internationals. I’ve never had Scholes down as a confidence player, but his goal buoyed him, and come the second half he was shooting from distance and stinging the ‘keepers hands like he does for United almost every week.

The advantage of this four-man midfield of very similar players is that if one isn’t having the greatest game (as Gerrard wasn’t last night) then they can be moved to a less conspicuous position. Shifting Gerrard out left benefited Scholes, and England, as Gerrard has just a little more dedication to defensive duties, and offered (the always outnumbered) Ashley Cole more help down the touchline. I really feel sorry for Cole in this England team; on at least five occasions last night he was left with three Croats surrounding him and no support from Gerrard, Scholes or Lampard—it meant that on more than one occasion Sol Campbell had to derelict his central defensive duties to help out the young left-back, which against a more aware forward line could cause serious problems. For the most part I thought Cole handled it really well though, and one-on-one, few Croation players got any change out of the Arsenal man. Cole also offered a serious threat down the left wing, with his crossing far better than it usually is (one excellent ball to Rooney, which the Evertonian miscontrolled, stads out in particular, as well as a neat bit of ball retention and a back hell to Lampard on the Croatian goal-line). Someone needs to have a word with Scholes and tell him that tracking back and covering are not dirty words.

England’s main weakness was exposed last night when substitutes were brought into play; even contemplating having to rely on a midfield of Phil Neville and Ledley King fills me with a cold dread. If ever there was such a thing as a perfect analogy, Frank Skinner found it last night: “Bringing on Phil Neville,” he said “is like when Ronnie O’Sullivan plays left-handed. It’s taking this piss.” Almost perfect—Ronnie O’Sullivan still looks bloody good playing left-handed.

So Rooney’s the top scorer in the tournament, England are the highest scoring team, and it’s the host nation in the Quarter-Finals. It nearly wasn’t to be, after some suicidal defending by Mikael Silvestre in France’s game against Switzerland last night allowed the watch-makers an equaliser, thus setting up an England v Greece QF. Two fine goals from Thierry Henry—the kind that everyone’s been expecting him to score but so far remained disappointed—gave France the three points and a position atop group B.

It’s a shame the either England or Portugal won’t be in the competition anymore after Thursday; the two most enthusiastically supported teams shouldn’t meet this early—though it promises to be one hell of an atmosphere inside the Estadio de Luz on Thursday evening, I think I may join in the revelry in Manchester’s Exchange Square, weather permitting, and enjoy the football whatever the result (prediction? 2-1 England).

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