England rediscover spirit and style
For the first time in South Africa, the world got a glimpse of the 'real England' on Wednesday evening, as they booked their Round of 16 berth with a narrow victory over Slovenia.
Accused of 'sleepwalking' their way through last Friday's insipid stalemate with Algeria, England finally came to life in this FIFA World Cup™, securing their progress through Jermain Defoe’s 23rd-minute volley. There was no tactical revolution – Fabio Capello sticking to his favoured 4-4-2 and introducing Defoe alongside Rooney – but there was a return to virtues for which the squad are famed.
In doing so, England gave the perfect response to manager Capello's call to arms, as Steven Gerrard explained. Speaking to FIFA, the England captain said the team had delivered "what the manager asked. He wanted us to show the England spirit, he wanted us to press and be very aggressive and also show our qualities at the right times".
If there were questions about the spirit in the England camp in the build-up to this contest in Port Elizabeth, they were answered with a performance high on commitment and featuring no little quality. Requiring the victory to advance, England took control through Defoe's volleyed strike and finally lived up to their billing as one of the teams to fear at this FIFA World Cup. Gerrard added: "We've showed everyone in the country today, the supporters at home and the supporters that have spent their money to come here, that when we play well, when we fight for each other, we are a force. We've got to try and build on this performance because there's another game in a few days we need to start preparing for. In the first game we did OK, but never got the win; game two we were nowhere near good enough, but the final game today in the group we needed a massive performance and we got it, so well done to everyone."
Defoe's strike was created by James Milner, who produced a lovely ball in from the right for the Tottenham Hotspur forward to volley past Samir Handanovic. Milner's contribution made amends for a disappointing debut in the tournament when he was substituted after just 31 minutes of the opening game against USA.
The Aston Villa midfielder told FIFA: "We've got a lot of quality in the squad so to get the nod to play in a game as big as this was great and it is down to you to then go out there and deliver. It was nice to be part of the goal but the main thing was that we got the result and it was a big, big performance. We covered a lot of ground between us and worked very hard on a tough pitch. It took it out of us but we will recover now and be ready for the weekend."
After Defoe's strike, only some fine goalkeeping by Handanovic and England's own profligacy denied them a second goal. Defoe and Rooney both spurned chances to kill off Slovenia as England dominated the first part of the second half. The result was some tense moments towards the finish with some superb blocks from John Terry, Glen Johnson and – in the last minute – Matthew Upson, foiling Slovenia's attackers. With the crucial three points finally won, Gerrard summed up the feeling that a weight had been lifted from the squad's shoulders when he said: "It is a relief because we only had the one goal and when you're in a must-win situation, it's very important to get goals two and three but it never came. We could only manage one but it was enough to see us home."