The Friday night win by England in Bulgaria was made all the sweeter by Wales victory over Montenegro on the same evening. These results meant that England now had a lead of 3 points at the top of the Group going into their home game against the Welsh. A victory at Wembley would all but seal qualification for England; anything else would mean a nervy final fixture in Podgorica next month.
Whilst pleased that England came away from Sofia with a win, the assertions by some quarters of the media that this was a ‘new dawn’ from a ‘young England’ has left me a touch apprehensive. The reality is that Bulgaria are a pretty ordinary international team, yet still tested England. This result and indeed the performances in this Qualifying campaign have left me feeling that up against the top world sides in the major competitions England will continue to struggle.
As the game approaches tonight, I have that feeling in the gut that it won’t be plain sailing tonight. Wales will have their dragon-tails up after their victory on Friday night and would like nothing less that denting England’s hopes of Qualification at Wembley. Many people consider that England failed to Qualify for the 1974 World Cup in West Germany because of the 1-1 draw in the final fixture against Poland on a damp October night in 1973. However, Wales played their part in ensuring England didn’t make it through. Having beaten Wales 1-0 in Cardiff in November 1972, Sir Alf Ramsey must have thought his England team would do the double over The Dragons when the Welsh came to Wembley in January 1973. Wales hadn’t read the script and lead on 23 minutes through a John Toshack goal. Norman Hunter did level the scores just before half-time, but England couldn’t find a winner in the second half and their World Cup dream was coming apart at the seams. Nine months later and it was kaput. Signor Capello you have been warned.
Well the only positive thing to say is that England won the game. As with many others who have just witnessed the 90 minutes at Wembley, I am left with a feeling of disappointment and no little relief. The opening 30 minutes England had plenty of possession, but it was mostly in the defensive third of the field. When on the ball they looked ponderous, lacked movement and were without ideas or inspiration. Is it just me, but are James Milner, Gareth Barry or Stewart Downing really international class footballers? The ten minutes before half-time when Ashley Young scored offered some hope, when there appeared to at last be a vibrancy and purpose about their play. Indeed for the opening ten minutes of the second half, England took the game once again to Wales and I was hopeful that a second goal would follow. However, that was as good as it got for Capello’s team as they withered away in the remainder of the game. Wales took control and England were unable to retain any sort of possession. The Dragons were comfortably the better team in the second half and but for Rob Earnshaw missing what can only be described as a ‘sitter’, would have deservedly taken a point from this fixture.
As is it England travel to Montenegro next month knowing a point will see them through to the 2012 Euro Finals in Poland/Ukraine next June. However, you can only agree with the Welsh fans who by the end of the game were taunting their English counterparts by chanting, “…Fourth in the rankings, you’re having a laugh…”