Thursday, October 18, 2007

Russia 2-1 England

Four minutes. That's how long it took for England to bugger up their chances of qualifying for Euro 2008.

It's been interesting today, reading all the analysis criticizing the team, because up until about the 70th minute yesterday, the commentators were going on about how this was a good performance by England: they were containing Russia reasonably well, working hard to shut them down and then hitting them on the break.

And if that's all they were trying to do -- guarantee a draw, maybe squeak a win -- then that's fine. But if they were, like Steve McClaren claimed before the game, supposed to be going all-out for the victory, then it's not good enough. And it's a dangerous strategy regardless, and one that we've seen backfire for England too many times before: they defend deeper and deeper, let teams come at them, panic and inevitably break down.

Maybe you wouldn't have expected to give up two goals to Russia. But they could've used another goal for insurance, and they weren't doing enough to create that -- you certainly can't expect Michael Owen to keep winning balls in the air against the centre backs -- and wasting those chances they did create, like Steven Gerrard from Gareth Barry's free kick early in the second half.

If he'd put that chance away, or if Micah Richards had got a toe to that free kick a few minutes later, it could have been a different game. What happened, though, was that McClaren seemed content to stick with the status quo, while Guus Hiddink reacted and put on Roman Pavlyuchenko as a substitute. That was the crucial move, as he combined with Andrei Arshavin to crank up the pressure on the jittery England defence.

First, Wayne Rooney undermined the good work he'd done earlier with a gorgeous volleyed goal, fouling Arshavin on the edge of the box and conceding a penalty. (Yes, it might have been outside the box, but then so might he have been offside for the goal.) Almost immediately, Russia had turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead, as Paul Robinson parried Alexei Berezutsky's drive straight back towards Pavlyuchenko.

Robinson was surely at fault for the second goal, but the rest of the defense has to share the blame -- there were far too many incidents where they were scrambling in the box and couldn't get the ball clear. And don't ask me why Wayne Rooney was the one who had to be back defending when he gave away that penalty, but obviously somebody else was out of position. I don't think you can point the finger at any one particular player -- although Joleon Lescott's deer-in-headlights impression makes an obvious target -- but I'm going to go out on a limb and lay some of the blame at the feet of John Terry.

Yes, I know he wasn't even on the pitch. But I can't help thinking that if he hadn't been so insistent that he'd be fit -- and the coaching staff hadn't bought into his iron man routine -- then maybe the rest of the back line wouldn't have been so shaken up in his absence. (I also might have hoped that McClaren's appalling man management wouldn't have alienated Jamie Carragher so completely, but that's another story.)

Right, so, back to the game: 15 minutes left to salvage something. McClaren makes a triple substitution, bringing on Frank Lampard, Peter Crouch and, um, Stewart Downing, but it comes across less as a bold, Mourinho-esque game-changing move, and more as "I have no fucking idea, but it's either this or Phil Neville, so what the hell." And it works about as well as you'd expect, which is to say, not at all, as the clock runs down without much happening.

The loss leaves England still in second place in the group with 23 points, between Croatia with 26 and Russia with 21. Russia have two games left, away to Israel and Andorra, while England have just one more chance, at home to Croatia. The Andorra game should be a gimme for Russia, which means that even if England beat Croatia, a Russian victory in Israel will knock them out. Now, beating Israel at home is never easy -- just look at the trouble England had there -- and it's quite possible that England could beat Croatia, but their qualification hopes are on a knife-edge right now.

The thing is, though, it wasn't actually those four minutes in Moscow that screwed them. It was the 12 months before that, when they drew at home to Macedonia and away to Israel, and lost away to Croatia. If they'd been able to pick up a few more points from those games, then this loss to Russia -- in what was always going to be a tough match -- wouldn't have been quite so crucial.

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