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The Libero - England prolong the agony

Published: 24 Jun 2010 - 06:30:52

Don't throw away that Three Lions flag just yet. Nor the red and white plastic hats, the England-themed trumpets and bumper stickers, or those St George's (hot) cross buns.

The win over Slovenia has ensured there will be at least another three days of England participation in this World Cup, although whether Fabio Capello's side can prolong their involvement in the tournament any further than that is highly debatable.

England were much improved in Port Elizabeth - could have have been any worse than they were against Algeria? - but still the performance hardly instilled confidence that this side can go all the way in South Africa.

- Slovenia 0-1 England

- Player ratings

While the result was the perfect tonic after what has been a turbulent couple of days in the England camp, and while there was plenty of back-slapping at full-time, not least from Capello who made a point of embracing mutineer-in-chief John Terry, problems clearly still remain.

Yes, there was more desire and passion. Yes, the passing was crisper and going forward they looked far more creative. And yes Capello's team selection, most notably that of goalscorer Jermain Defoe, worked out.

But overall it was a far from fluid display, not consistent enough, and far too stop-start to genuinely worry bigger rivals at the tournament. The fact that England were desperately hanging onto a narrow 1-0 lead as the game neared its conclusion told its own story.

Wayne Rooney is usually a fairly good barometer of England's chances at a major tournament and, despite a promising start, the striker again faded badly, picking up an injury that eventually forced him off. His body language on his way off was that of a man who knows he left his best form back at home.

And before anyone gets carried away - although it might be too late for BBC commentator Guy Mowbray, who at full-time sounded like he'd just seen Steven Gerrard lift the famous trophy - let's not forget that this victory was over Slovenia.

Slovenia are a decent side - as any European side who have qualified for the finals has to be, especially one that manages to beat Russia in a play-off en route.

But they are no Spain or Brazil. Matjaz Kek's side are ranked by FIFA as the 25th best team in the world - 17 places below England in eighth - and with a population of just two million their resources are severely limited. Football isn't even the country's main sport.

Yet by the end of the game, England were playing with their backs to the walls and pretty much anywhere would do for Capello's defenders. The fear of failure which had so badly afflicted them during the first two encounters had crept back in and they could easily have been punished for it.

They weren't, and England live to fight another day. Actually, three more days to be exact, because any euphoria that may have followed qualification was quickly tempered, first by Landon Donovan's strike to send the USA through as Group C winners and then Mezut Ozil's goal that confirmed Germany are the team England will face in the next round. And we all know what will happen against the Germans.

The way Germany tore into Australia in their first game provided as stark a contrast to how England have been playing as possible. Then, Germany played with an abandon that said they were actually enjoying playing at the World Cup. There was no fear, just a joy in their game. And the 4-0 scoreline reflected that.

England need to discover a similar enjoyment to their play if they are to even stand a chance of beating Joachim Loew's side on Sunday. Once again against Slovenia it was missing, and the longer Capello's face remains contorted with rage on the touchline, the more difficult it will be for his players to relax and begin to enjoy themselves on the pitch.

Of course, anything can happen in tournament football - Germany even missed a penalty earlier in the week, shock, horror - and England may still somehow find a way to beat their old foes. It's just not very likely, given the history between the two sides, the continued, unrelenting pressure on the Three Lions players' shoulders and the current, wildly differing form of both teams.

What England fans can be sure of though is that they are set for another 90 minutes of pure, unbridled suffering, with probably a further half hour of extra-time pain on top and maybe even a penalty shoot-out thrown in for good measure. Which will result in defeat. To the Germans. Again.

That excruciatingly depressing outcome may even prompt the loyal fan spotted in the Port Elizabeth crowd with "We Still Believe" scrawled in red marker pen across his back to wonder exactly why he continues to put himself through this torture time and again.

READ THE LIBERO EXCLUSIVELY AT FOOTBALL.CO.UK

DSG


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FOOTBALL.CO.UK BLOGGER:the libero
Libero (noun): 1. Versatile, ball-playing defender given licence to roam. Expected to break up opposition attacks while instigating counters. Role patented by German legend Franz Beckenbauer. 2. Versatile weekly football columnist, aka journalist Mike Hytner, given licence to write what he likes. Expected to file every Wednesday. Not nearly as talented as his boyhood hero Der Kaiser.

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