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All Things Footie | Friday, June 25 | Jordan

Strength is depth

While France can bring on World Cup Winners and experienced Internationals, Portugal can bring on natural born goalscorers and players who’ve had nearly a decade in Serie A first teams—even Germany can bring on players with at least two major International tournaments under their belts—England had Darius Vassell, Emile Heskey, Joe Cole and Kieron Dyer as realistic options once Wayne Rooney suffered an unfortunate injury. That’s why England lost last night. Dodgily disallowed goals and sloppy defending from Phil Neville are not the sum total of England’s problems. Throughout the ninety minutes Portugal were by far the better side; though saying that they didn’t look like they’d score if they were still playing now. Unfortunately for England, Ronnie O’Svennigan switched hands and tried to prove his dexterity by bringing on Phil Neville. Bad move Sven, a tired, half-fit, out-of-form Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard is still a million times better than Phil Neville. England’s negativity was rewarded as they surrendered all posession in midfield and set up a shooting gallery for the Portuguese team.

For once, no one dare blame the England defence. Given that the other seven players on the field seemed wholly disinterested in playing, it was only some fabulous and heroic defending from Gary Neville, John Terry, Sol Campbell, and in particular Ashley Cole that stopped Portugal creating many more chances than they did. In fact, Neville and Cole kept Figo and Ronaldo so quiet that Portugal’s two (supposedly) most influential players barely retained the ball for more than two or three touches at a time. Figo was withdrawn early, and Ronaldo surely only remained on the pitch due to his astonishing fitness levels. Last night Cole produced one of the finest full-back performances I’ve ever seen—against a young winger with pace, fitness and a sackfull of tricks (not to mention a referee that blew up everytime anyone in green and burgundy flung themselves groundwards). Particularly late on, and in extra time, Portugals only outlet seemed to be Ronaldo, every ball found him on the right wing, and every time he brought it down, there was Cole on his shoulder to disposess him and start an English break. Not mistiming any tackles, rarely wasting the ball and never stopping running, we could have done with four Coles in midfield.

Beckham, Gerrard, Scholes, Neville and Lampard were all very, very poor last night. Almost inexcusably so. Beckham looked disinterested, and though he played some delicious balls through the Portugal defence and tracked back well, he never looked comitted, never looked willing to take the game by the scruff of the neck. That’s why he’s not a captain—captains are never disinterested. Gerrard was sloppy, silly and out-of-touch with the rest of his team—his last few games have been the poorest I’ve seen him play in an England shirt; he bottled it on the big stage. For large periods of the game it was back to the Gerrard that looks overrated—aimless, wasteful long balls desperately trying to find Owen, completely unwilling to play it short, keep it simple. Scholes kept his head down, worked hard, tried to do his job, but looked unfit out of luck. Lampard is the one player that though he played poorly, can hold his head up; he kept plugging, kept trying, kept running; even though you could see he was shattered. His goal was reward for keeping a cool head and desperately trying to be in the right place at the right time. The midfield’s problem was cohesion and organisation, no communication, no one picking out easy passes, all of them trying to be match winners—and when you look at the character of each player in there, it’s not surprising; they’re all used to that role.

History has a habit of repeating itself, and both Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal and Phil Neville’s dopey attempt at a challenge on Rui-Costa costing England late in the day harked back to failures past (v Argentina, 1998 and v Romania 2000 respectively). It would have been poetic if one of the players that had been dominating the only area of the pitch England did well and scored the winner from a corner in the dying moments. The atrocious Urs Meier wasn't interested though, I said before the game to a friend that he was a terrible ref and could ruin the game, and while whether he did the latter or not is dependant on your nationality, there's no doubt about my former statement. He's shocking, so easily influenced by the crowd (both England and Portuguese fans) and so determined to please UEFA and his hosts that he completely forgot he was meant to be looking after a game of football. The occasion got to him in the same way it has in every match I've ever seen him referee. I guess it’s what happens when you spend your season refereeing the likes of Grasshoppers and FC Gallen.

Surprise, surprise, a penalty shootout. But the shootout itself was full of surprises. I didn’t think Beckham would bottle it; I thought he may take a poor penalty, but not slash at it like an amateur. It took a lot of guts for Owen to step up second—particularly after Beckham’s miss—but credit to the Liverpool man, he put it away with aplomb. The penalties from Lampard and Hargreaves were equally cool; very unlike England. Coming to the last penalty, I feared for Ashley Cole—the script is written for the defender to cock up his penalty, and off the back of a great game, a miss was almost inevitable. A cooler penalty I did not see, with the exception of that of the man he’d thwarted all night—I wondered if Ronaldo felt he could be so cool because for once he didn’t have to try and climb out of Cole’s pocket to kick the ball.

A word on the decisive moment: after Vassell had his penalty saved, it took some balls for goalkeeper Ricardo to volunteer (he’d seemingly not arranged to do so with his teammates) to take the penalty that would win the game. It’s an understatement to say that he didn’t need to put his head on the block like that, and it was a fine penalty; I couldn’t help but applaud his courage and his confidence (literally, applaud). Astonishing, and if anyone in that side deserves to be the hero it’s Sporting Lisbon’s stopper.

Despite England, and more specifically Eriksson’s, tactical dullness and unfathomable negativity, it would be wrong not to praise Portugal. Maniche was everything Scholes or Gerrard should have been in midfield, controlling the play and dictating the game with the equally marvellous Costinha by his side. Nothing was happening for Deco, but he kept at it, only to be thwarted again and again by Campbell & Co. It was a game won in the centre of midfield—Portugal’s defence didn’t do particularly well, and neither Nuno Gomes, Simão Sabrosa, Figo or Ronaldo had a game to remember; mainly due to the stoic defending of England that I keep harping on about.

So it was, and is, as simple as that—and there’s almost a twist of irony that with four central midfielders on the pitch England completely failed to take a grip on the centre of the park. It was the same against France, when Makelele and Vieira dictated the pace of the game. I stand by my thoughts before the tournament that Beckham should have been played centrally with Lampard alongside him, Gerrard out on the right and Bridge, left. Gerrard simply isn’t ready for the kind of responsibility that playing in the centre of midfield at this level requires (remember this is his first major tournament). Lampard’s an old head on young shoulders and looks comfortable as you like at the heart of everything, and Beckham—despite some lapses in confidence and self-belief—could dictate play with his crisp passing and lack of wastefulness. The truth is that Gerrard simply passes to the opposition too often, be it over 4 yards or 40, and that does a team far more damage when it comes from the heart than from out wide.

Of course, having more than eleven English players who are any good would have helped.

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