With Ukraine playing in Chisinau and unable to break down Moldova, England’s 5-0 victory over San Marino – joint bottom of the FIFA World Rankings – allowed Roy Hodgson’s side to take a three-point lead at the top of Group H in FIFA World Cup 2014 qualifying. It was a frustrating night for England, who lost Theo Walcott to an early injury and took over 30 minutes to find the net.
Walcott lasted just a few minutes before San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini over-stepped the line between incompetently reckless and outright dangerous, piling into the Arsenal winger and leaving him in a heap on the edge of the area with a chest injury that has ruled him out of the trip to Poland on Tuesday.
Simoncini was fortunate to avoid giving away a penalty for his outrageous challenge on Walcott, and there is an argument that he could have been dismissed. He did have his name taken 30 minutes later, when England finally found a way through. Danny Welbeck beat him to the ball, dragged his feet and was clumsily up-ended to win England a penalty. Wayne Rooney dispatched it without fuss.
Welbeck quickly added a second with a lovely flicked finish from close range, finishing off a low cross from substitute Aaron Lennon. A 2-0 half time lead didn’t become 3-0 until 20 minutes from time, and once again it was followed by another goal almost in the blink of an eye.
Rooney scored the third, sweeping a curling shot low across Simoncini to add a moment of quality to a testing half, and Welbeck prodded in the fourth – another classic striker’s goal, this one set up by Tom Cleverley. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain added the fifth with a neat clipped finish to open his international account.
For all the hand-wringing, negativity and uproar at England’s inability to pile up the proverbial cricket score, there seems no point whatsoever in putting time and effort into judging the performance. That didn’t stop the BBC, whose sports bulletins throughout Saturday morning greeted the match as if Hodgson had defecated in Louise Minchin’s dressing room drawer.
Playing against San Marino is undoubtedly a bizarre experience. Rubbish they might be, but on some days they’re more rubbish than on others. They also – as the television coverage endlessly pointed out – play with eleven men behind the ball, and that’s not going to be a simple or even a familiar experience for England’s players.
“We couldn’t even break down San Marino,” parped a caller to BBC Radio 5 Live’s live 6-0-6 show yesterday, which was otherwise entirely spoiled by the quite despicable contempt for supporters that so obviously bubbled through the barely polished media veneers of Jason Roberts and Robbie Savage. Only we did break them down. We broke them down enough to score five goals and miss a handful of presentable chances.
Games against San Marino shouldn’t be judged on the level of performance, because it is an artificial comparison with any other fixture. Likewise, the result shouldn’t be judged a failure just because the Netherlands, for example, scored more. So what? Goal difference could matter at the end of the qualifying campaign, but try telling that to Ukraine after they missed an opportunity to bank even three points in Moldova.
Individual performances were, in general, passable. Rooney and Welbeck demonstrated adept finishing, Oxlade-Chamberlain was lively and his desire to get on the ball boundless. Perhaps the genuine point of concern – over and above the post-match bleating – was the decision making of Kyle Walker, who for some reason seemed to be affected by the occasion. When the situation called for a ball to be whipped into the box, he tended to opt for a cut-back. Mis-controls punctuated a frustrating showing.
In The Independent, Sam Wallace questioned the value of having England play San Marino at all:
“If ever there was an argument for Uefa introducing pre-qualification then it was this. It was not like a FA Cup third-round tie because at least a lower-league club that gets that far has earned their place. It was not a brave effort from the students, accountants and teachers; it was pointless.”
I’m still not quite in agreement with the pre-qualification concept, even though it’s the most logical solution. I suppose I question whether it would solve a problem that is truly there, or if these matches are just an inconvenience. Perhaps the world’s worst teams would rather give 14 men a cap at Wembley than enjoy the marginal improvement that might result from getting into the habit of playing more competitive matches.
Walcott would very possibly prefer not to play semi-professionals again for a while. Paul Wilson of The Guardian didn’t see a problem with Simoncini’s clash with the Arsenal star:
“Aldo Simoncini is not the new Harald Schumacher – like Theo Walcott, he had his eyes on the ball and not the man. Their early collision was spectacular but seemed to be accidental, with each player as committed as the other.”
Amyway, over at The Mirror, Andy Dawson has had his say on Friday night’s game. I have no doubt that his article is brilliantly incisive and thought-provoking, but clearly I’m not clever enough to appreciate it:
“Let’s be honest, the most exciting moment of the match came when Rinaldi raced through with the ball at his feet to face Joe Hart and… sky it half a mile over the bar. If even a small part of you didn’t want him to score and kick England into action, you’re a weirdo.”
His colleague Oliver Holt, while perhaps over-playing the potential of Rooney, is at least looking ahead to the Poland match on Tuesday and willing to see a positive:
“They will need to see evidence not just of contrition, but of the ability he undoubtedly has of being able to win a game for his country. He will be 27 this month. He should be coming into his prime. If he can avoid injury, if he has finally learned to control his temper and avoid costly suspensions, there is no reason why he should not re-emerge as one of the best players in the game.”
Personally, I’ll take the three points and five goals and be happy with them. On Tuesday evening, we’ll have a better opportunity to judge Hodgson’s short-term progress with the team.
(Photo credit: Andrea Sartorati via Flickr)
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