Lampard Saves Pedestrian England as Ukraine Set Up World Cup Roadblock
Roy Hodgson's England are just two games into their World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign, but it's never too early for this tortured football nation to start building the bonfire upon which another manager will inevitably be burned.
Hodgson's team were minutes away from defeat to Ukraine at Wembley, having gone behind to Yevgen Konoplianka's rasping drive on 39 minutes and wasted several clear chances to respond—Manchester United's Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck being the prime culprits.
Had it stayed that way, England would have mourned a potentially disastrous undoing. Only the teams finishing atop their qualifying groups are guaranteed a place in Brazil, so the Three Lions would likely have needed to win in Ukraine and Poland to avoid a playoff.
That may yet happen, of course. If Ukraine were to win the remainder of their games and the two teams draw in Kiev, England could still fall short of the automatic passage their No. 3 FIFA ranking surely demands.
Third in the world? Not on the evidence of anything we've seen since the heady days of Italia 90, they're not.
Hodgson sent out his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Ukraine. It was certainly a departure from the inflexible 4-4-2 setup we saw under Fabio Capello, but it remains to be seen whether England have the players to make it work.
On the evidence here, they don't.
Cleverley was cast as England's trequartista—their ball-playing maestro pushed forward centrally behind Jermain Defoe. It was a role that invited the 23-year-old to stake his claim, but Cleverley's night will be remembered most for a glaring miss that Wednesday's papers will argue cost England victory.
You can't fault his short passing and movement, but for Cleverley to truly emerge as the talent Hodgson and Sir Alex Ferguson believe we have before us, he needs to develop a more clinical touch in front of goal.
Elsewhere, England were lumbering in defense and looked suspect every time Ukraine pushed forward. To watch Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka in tandem was to realize just how reliant England are on John Terry—and to ponder once more whether Rio Ferdinand's England days are really over.
It was a bad night for Steven Gerrard, too. There were the usual fizzed side-foot passes to admire, but the Liverpool captain was sent off for two bookable offences and will now miss England's trip to Poland in October.
One of the few England players to emerge with credit was Defoe, who was denied a superb solo goal by a harsh refereeing decision in the first half and worked well with limited resources throughout.
Too many times Hodgson's team looked to find their diminutive striker with high balls into the box. And too many times they failed to find him from good positions in the final third.
England were flat for long periods. The introduction of Welbeck was therefore a welcome invigoration, and it was the United striker who won the 87th-minute penalty from which Lampard would score England's precious equalizer.
It finished 1-1, and England lived to fight another day. But it's clear they'll need to box a lot more cleverly than this to be competitive at the World Cup finals in two years.
They'll need to box more cleverly to reach the finals at all.
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