England won't go without a fight
By JAMES LAWTON for QMI Agency
England's Steven Gerrard celebrates advancing to the next round after beating Slovenia. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
PORT ELIZABETH - England is not much closer to winning the World Cup, not with rampant Argentina as a potential quarterfinal opponent, and not by finishing second in the Group of Extremely Unlikely Death, which will never rate as one of the great battle ribbons.
However, there is something to cherish here in the stadium named for Nelson Mandela after its 1-0 victory over Slovenia on Wednesday. It is an achievement that can be defined only against a backcloth of what had threatened to be complete professional breakdown, a shameful failure to respond to the demands of the tournament which is supposed to examine every corner of a team's talent and competitive character.
What England did here, however imperfectly and at times quite wastefully, was stand up and say that it would not be slinking away, bearing one of the gravest humiliations in the history of its national game.
It gave strong evidence that it had looked into the mirror and decided that it did not like what it had seen. And the result was a performance that brought back some evidence that it might again be considered a serious football team after the appalling collapse of values in Cape Town last Friday.
We cannot really talk of heroism, not in a victory by a team with the background and the resources of England over one such as Slovenia (population two million). But there is something to say about the way players such as Steven Gerrard and James Milner -- who was fighting his way out of the personal nightmare that enveloped him in the opening game against the group winners, the United States -- resisted the possibility that they might now be packing their bags in the luxurious quarters which, for some days, had been portrayed as a bolt-hole of hellish frustration and disillusion.
That was a development which, logic insisted, almost certainly would have led to the resignation of Fabio Capello, a man of ferocious ambition and pride who could not, surely, have continued to enjoy a highly civilized lifestyle in London while branded by a failure of his team so shocking it would have been beyond his worst imaginings when he took up the challenge two years ago.
Now, Capello has a little time to continue the retrenchment that faced him in Cape Town. Whether it will carry him through Sunday's round of 16 in Bloemfontein is a question that permitted no certain answer Wednesday night but, as England dominated Slovenia so profoundly it should have won by at least three goals, for the coach, there was the relief that his worst fears had not been realized.
He said that England would be recognizable again and so it was in passages of play which kindled memories, so strained recently, of the team which moved through qualification with such confidence and even persuaded some to return them to the group of serious contenders.
Jermaine Defoe's 16th-minute goal was an injection of belief and much of what followed confirmed Capello's statement that the work in training had been sharpened by a new determination to, at the very least, salvage a little pride.
Gerrard, who for some took far too passive a role when his predecessor John Terry appeared to be making outrageous mischief in the wake of the appalling performance against Algeria, had at least plainly resolved to make a substantial statement on the field.
At times, he linked beautifully with Wayne Rooney, whose limping exit near the end was another suggestion that part of his recent frustration has come from less than true belief in his fitness. And, with the hugest irony, Gerrard also combined effectively at times with Frank Lampard.
There were other moments which might have persuaded Capello that, if the odds against England fulfilling his core projection that it would at least make the final remained heavy, it was no longer an open target for derision.
Matthew Upson, surprisingly picked ahead of Michael Dawson, showed a marvelous clarity of tough and clean action when he denied Zlatko Dedik the chance to make devastation when he was free in the penalty area in the last minutes of excruciating tension.
Capello also had reason again to wonder at the strange, if sometimes wretched complexities of the dichotomy existing between Terry's warrior nature on the field and something much less uplifting off it.
Terry said he was here to redeem the idea that he was a one-man conspiracy to bring down his own team and, not for the first time, he proved that he makes the best case for himself when the action is fierce. It was not that England were weighed down by defensive pressure, but there were times, when the flow of English attack had been repulsed, often fortuitously, when Terry was required. He responded well, and there should be no hardship in acknowledging it.
However, if Capello had reason to recognize his team again, and some of its best qualities -- which he said was impossible in the haunting angst of Cape Town -- he may well have settled warmly on the resurrection of Milner.
Scarcely a week ago, it was near impossible to imagine from the Aston Villa man a performance of such commitment and solid effect. He supplied the perfect ball for Defoe's exultant volley and he was never less than relentless in his conviction that this was the day he would re-state his credentials as a young international footballer of both talent and nerve.
In this, Milner almost certainly provided Capello with the most encouraging evidence that England indeed had emerged from some serious re-examination with a restored will to compete. Milner, it seemed, cared about every stride he took.
Slovenia is only Slovenia, it is true, but it did banish Guus Hiddink's Russia on the road here and it would have been, in view of England's approach to Wednesday's game, crazed optimism to have put beyond it the possibility of staging another ambush.
England resisted such a fate, however, and maybe it did a little more than win the match that brought survival. Perhaps it won the right to sleep a little easier.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.