Group C ….Pld W D L F A GD Pts
Slovenia 2 1 1 0 3 2 +1 4
USA 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 2
England 2 0 2 0 1 1 0 2
Algeria 2 0 1 1 0 1 -1 1
England go into today’s game knowing they almost certainly need to win to qualify. There would need to be an absurd combination of results (both matches being drawn, but England’s draw at least three goals higher) for a draw to take us through. In the unlikely event that England’s draw was exactly two goals higher than the USA’s draw, the two teams would have identical records and a level head-to-head record, so they would draw lots to see who qualified. That would be the worst outcome in football history.
If England beat Slovenia then they will definitely qualify, while Slovenia know a draw will take them through and a win would guarantee top spot. The USA know that if they win they are definitely through, while a draw would probably be enough if England don’t win. Algeria go into their game knowing that if they win and Slovenia win they would go through in second, and they could also finish as runners-up if England drew and they won by a couple. Simple eh?
2:30pm: Capello makes three changes, but the clamour for Joe Cole to start has fallen on deaf ears. Matthew Upson comes in for the suspended Jamie Carragher, while James Milner returns to the side in place of Aaron Lennon and Jermaine Defoe replaces Emile Heskey. England keep two up front and Gerrard will operate out wide. Capello really has ignored the dissenting tactical opinions; on his head be it.
Slovenia are unchanged from the team that drew 2-2 with the USA. In the other game, the Americans make three changes, with Jonathan Bornstein, Maurice Edu and the wonderfully-named Hercules Gomez coming into the side. Algeria make one change.
Kick-off is less than half an hour away and I’ve taken my seat amongst a gathering of England fans watching the game on a big screen in a Church hall. The following will be my reactions to the most important ninety minutes of Capello’s tenure so far. The updates from the other game will be sparse, but I’m sure you can cope with that.
3:00pm: The venue I’ m watching the game in is currently less than half full and someone at the front is blowing an annoying horn. I feel like I’m over at the World Cup itself. Come on England!
3:07pm: The first chance of note goes to Slovenia, long range specialist Valter Birsa firing at goal from 25 yards, but David James saves comfortably.
3:09pm: England are flying into tackles all over the pitch, with Glen Johnson and Gareth Barry both lucky to avoid bookings.
3:10pm: Rooney cuts in from the left and floats a cross towards the far post, but it is headed to safety by a Slovenian defender with James Milner closing in.
3:15pm: England are passing the ball around reasonably well without threatening the Slovenian goal. The spectators where I am seem pretty subdued, although seeing as we’re thousands of miles away watching it on a big screen; I doubt it’ll affect the players. Someone should explain that to the one guy in every pub who annoys the entire room by shouting tactical advice at the TV for 90 minutes. THEY CAN’T HEAR YOU! If there’s one of those idiots hampering your viewing experience at this point, you have my sympathy.
3:16pm: England almost had a chance! Rooney plays a pass through the legs of a defender and Lampard nearly gets onto the end of it but comes up just short.
3:17pm: We’re in full flow now. Rooney hits a powerful shot which is deflected wide for a corner. The resultant corner is met by the head of John Terry and the ball flashes across the face of goal.
3:20pm: Slovenian forward Ljubiankic gets in behind the English defence, but just as he’s about to shoot, Terry recovers to make a fantastic block.
3:23pm: GOAL for ENGLAND! We’ve made the breakthrough! Brilliant play from the recalled James Milner; beating a man out on the right and swinging a fantastic cross into the six yard box where it is met by Jermaine Defoe. The pint-sized forward got in front of his marker to prod the ball straight at goalkeeper Handanovic, but the ‘keeper is unable to keep it out and England have the lead.
3:25pm: Frank Lampard hits a left footed shot narrowly over from the edge of the box. A second goal in the next few minutes would really put us in control.
3:30pm: England are all over Slovenia and have just had a great double chance. Defoe hits a fierce drive at goal which is too hot for Handanovic to handle as he parries the shot. Rooney gets to the rebound first and squares to Gerrard who hits a side-foot shot towards the bottom corner. Handanovic got to the ball, but it squirmed out of his grasp and back towards the line, but thankfully for Slovenia their ‘keeper recovered in time to stop it going in.
3:35pm: Another great cross from Milner, who has been England’s most effective player in the first half hour. Milner crosses from the right and the Slovenian right-back knocks it out for a corner under pressure from Rooney.
3:40pm: Not much has happened in the past five minutes, and it has given me time to reflect on my feelings towards Mark Lawrenson. He is an incredibly frustrating commentator to listen to; knows almost nothing about anyone who doesn’t play in the Premier League, rarely shows any insight whatsoever, and his jokes are terrible. I wish there was a button where I could choose to listen to the constant drone of the vuvuzelas; it would be less painful.
3:42pm: Slovenia swing a free-kick into the box which James comes and claims well under pressure. Not much going on, the half has fizzled out in the past ten minutes.
3:45pm: England go into the break 1-0 up, while in the other game the score is USA 0-0 Algeria. That combination of results is enough for England to top the group and Slovenia to join them in the Second Round, although that will all change should America score. The table as it stands is:
Group C ……..Pld W D L F A GD Pts
England 3 1 2 0 2 1 +1 5
Slovenia 3 1 1 1 3 3 0 4
USA 3 0 3 0 3 3 0 3
Algeria 3 0 2 1 0 1 -1 2
4:01pm: The game gets back underway and England have a great chance almost immediately. Handanovic rushes out and narrowly beats Rooney to the ball, giving away a corner, which Rooney takes quickly before the defence have time to get organised. They scramble the ball clear, but it comes straight back into the box where it is met by Defoe who flicks his shot only inches wide; nearly the perfect start for England.
4:04pm: GOAL for ENGLAND! Rooney races onto a through ball down the left hand side of the box and crosses for Defoe to tap home. What’s happening? No! The goal’s been disallowed. Absolutely gutting, although the replay shows it to be the correct decision. That doesn’t seem to have gotten through to many people where I’m watching the game; they’re still jumping around and cheering, despite no England players celebrating and the shot of the assistant referee with his flag. Only the most educated football fans in attendance today!
4:07pm: Chances at both ends; Slovenia’s coming through an in-swinging free-kick which put James under pressure, while England’s came after a great exchange of passes between Gerrard and Rooney, but Rooney missed his kick at the vital moment.
4:10pm: England’s players are spraying the ball around the pitch with much aplomb, but 1-0 is a dangerous score in any football game, particularly a game where you know a 1-1 draw would probably knock your team out. We need that second goal.
4:12pm: So close! Barry swings a corner towards the far post where it is met by the head of Terry, but his header is well saved by Handanovic.
4:13pm: How many chances do England need? Rooney finds himself all alone in the box, but snatches at his shot and it agonisingly bounces against the post. Replays show that it was a great fingertip save from the ‘keeper. Surely a second goal must come soon?
4:15pm: News comes through that the USA game is still 0-0, but that USA have hit the post and had a goal disallowed. If the USA don’t qualify they will rightly feel cheated; their disallowed injury time goal that would have made it 3-2 against Slovenia was entirely legitimate. My inner sense of justice bristles at the prospect that the USA might be wronged in this way, a viewpoint I share with the fans around me. None of them seem bothered.
4:18pm: Slovenia have a chance. Well, more of a half-chance. A tame effort from distance, but it is a reminder of the precarious nature of the current score.
4:20pm: Slovenia have another chance. Actually, they have three chances in the space of ten seconds. The ball breaks into the England box and is met by a decent strike which is blocked by Glen Johnson, and then Terry blocks the follow up shot at full stretch. The rebound again falls to a Slovenia player, although thankfully he can’t get his shot away in time and is dispossessed. This is far from over, and I am far from relaxed.
4:25pm: The fourth official raises his board and it is England’s number 10 being replaced. Joe Cole’s first action of the tournament will be as a replacement for Rooney. The striker looks far from happy to be replaced, although in truth it was another poor performance from Rooney. The commentator’s take on the substitution? Rooney is being rested for another day. Ridiculously arrogant; we’re one goal from going out.
4:30pm: My emotional state as we enter the final fifteen minutes? I’m a bag of nerves. I’ve realised over the years that the more that’s at stake in a football game, the less I enjoy it. This is one of those games. My heart is in my mouth every time Slovenia get the ball in our half, as I worry that the Slovenian in question will momentarily turn into Leo Messi, or that David James will momentarily turn into Rob Green.
4:35pm: Ten minutes to go and the game has become very scrappy, with neither side able to string more than three passes together. I’ll take that right now. This is still far from safe, hopefully the final 600 seconds plus stoppage time will pass without incident.
4:40pm: Five minutes to go. Slovenia have just had a corner cleared and full-back Miso Brecko followed up with a wildly ambitious effort that sails high and wide. I’ll take that.
4:45pm: Aaaggghhhh! Just as the clock hits 90 minutes, Slovenia bundle the ball into the box and twice they nearly get a shot at goal before it is desperately cleared away. Under normal circumstances it probably wasn’t much of a chance, but in this moment it felt like we were on the verge of going out. Supporting England at a World Cup really needs to come with a health warning.
4:48pm: IT’S ALL OVER! ENGLAND ARE THROUGH! The final whistle goes and England have won 1-0 to qualify for the knockout stages. If the USA game has ended as a draw then we top the group and Slovenia will finish as runners-up. The main thing is that we’re through.
4:50pm: AMERICA HAVE SCORED! Would you believe it? News comes through that the USA scored a late winner against Algeria and they now go through as group winners. Not great for England, but it does have a sense of poetic justice about it. America were robbed of a late winner against Slovenia, but now rob Slovenia of their place in the next round with a late winner against Algeria.
The group ends up like this:
Group C ……Pld W D L F A GD Pts
USA 3 1 2 0 4 3 +1 5
England 3 1 2 0 2 1 +1 5
Slovenia 3 1 1 1 3 3 0 4
Algeria 3 0 1 2 0 2 -2 1
That late American goal is bad news for England; we now face the winners of Group D, followed by a potential quarter-final against the winner of Argentina v Mexico. So, how about Germany in the Second Round, Argentina in the Quarters, Spain in the Semis and Brazil in the Final?
Nobody said it was going to be easy.
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