For all the well-deserved plaudits, we didn’t learn much about England on Saturday. Rather reminded me of a wedding rehearsal – polite, happy, didn’t count for anything. Slovakia played like footballing eunuchs and were duly thrashed at a canter.Ukraine, and their occasionally-preceding definite article, ought to prove a slightly different kettle of fish – but only slightly. Fifa’s curious ranking system has Ukraine within the top 20, and it is worth noting that, like England, they made the World Cup quarter finals in 2006. Shevchenko and chums are no mugs then – but this is the sort of straight-faced diplomacy trotted out by the players, in those excruciatingly bland pre-match press conferences sprinkled with phrases like “We won’t be underestimating them… No easy games at international level…”
Cutting through the blandness, and Fabio’s England, on the back of some perky form and with a team brimming full of Champions League connoisseurs, certainly ought to beat Ukraine at home. It’s unlikely to be quite as merry a cakewalk as on Saturday, but we still ought to win. While our position five points clear of Croatia gives us some margin for error, it would be better to have that in hand for the trip to Kiev, or visit of Croatia to Wembley. Ukraine at home is not really the time to slip up.
After the maternal members of the Terry family tried their hands at shoplifiting last week, there seemed grounds to suggest that at the weekend the family brain cell was being used by the England captain. This argument was promptly shot down at Wembley when JT ensured that a certain Crouch goal was disallowed for offside, by tapping in from one yard, when the ball was already past the ‘keeper and heading for the net. Better it happens in a friendly, I guess, but hardly the most impressive display of tactical acumen. Looks like Rio will be back to partner him on Wednesday.
A propos Rooney, the news that Crouch has recovered from injury suggests that Wednesday will see the beanpole up top, with the human gargoyle in that scrumptious position just off the main striker. Nods of approval at AANP Towers. Presumably Gerrard will continue on the left, where he did a good job on Saturday. The link-up play between him and Rooney has inevitably attracted plenty of praise, but he’s nevertheless a square peg in a round hole out there, and a better team then Slovakia (a fairly wide-ranging criterion admittedly) could expose both his right-footedness and defensive lapses. However, it seems this is his home for now, so he might as well bed in and make himself comfy.
The injuries to Heskey, Carlton Cole and Crouch led to some speculation over who would be called up. Michael Owen and Kevin Davies were the names being bandied around. In those kits I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Terry Thomas make an appearance. As it happened our very own Darren Bent got the nod.
The Darren Bent Confidence-O-Meter
Sat 7 March – Recalled to the Spurs starting XI against Sunderland, the dial on Bent’s Confidence-O-Meter stirs into life and hits 4 out of 10. However, a trademark Bent miss high into the north-east sky, sees the dial return to rock bottom, with our hero considering packing it all in.
Sun 15 March – Bent keeps his place in the starting XI for Villa, and the dial pings upwards again. His sensational two-inch tap-in sees the dial go right off the scale. Winning goal! Victory at Villa! The man is a hero – at least inside his own head – and his confidence has never been so high!
Weds 18March – Forgets to take the bin out for collection. Confidence begins to slump.
Sat 21 March – Retains his place in the starting XI, for visit of Chelski, and all is right with the world again. To his credit he worked his hoopy socks off, and contributed worthily to another fine win. These happy thoughts have the Confidence-O-Meter right up at level 10. However, every time he remembers that he didn’t actually score, it drops down several levels – such is the brittle existence of a “confidence player”. Just stay positive Dazza!
Sunday 29 March – The Bent Confidence-O-Meter explodes irreparably after Fabio calls him up for international duty, following injuries to the first 18 strikers on the list.
So it’s a good day to be Darren Bent. Or at least it was until he did his knee in training and Fabio called up Agbonlahor. Crouch and Rooney will start up front for England, and if things are going to plan I’d imagine Fabio will replace a striker with a midfielder in the closing stages, which will mean precious little action for either Bent of Agbonlahor.
Milestones for Terry and Beckham
On a final and belated note, AANP Towers politely and sincerely applauds Terry on winning his 50th cap, and similarly lauds Beckham on his 109th. One suspects that this newly-set record for outfield appearances will itself be surpassed soon enough – the modern-day international calendar seeing to it that the Ukraine game is Rooney’s 50th for England, at age 23. Nevertheless, while subtly steering clear of any sort of debate over his selection, I suggest that, whatever his off-pitch shenanigans, Beckham’s attitude in an England shirt always seems to be one of fierce and honest commitment. If all goes to plan more applause will be ringing out on Wednesday night.