The second round of World Cup 2010 brought the first heavyweight clash of the competition, unless you count the insipid , group match where Brazil and Portugal played out a cynically, manipulated 0-0 draw that allowed both teams to qualify.
Two old adversaries squared up in Bloemfontein on Sunday and four days on from the latest instalment of England versus Germany , the English remain punch drunk and bemused by yet another failure at international level of the "Golden Generation " and are looking for someone to blame.
Naturally , the referee and linesman are prime suspects, following one of the worst refereeing decisions at an international tournament in living memory. They can be the only two people who did not think Frank Lampard's shot had crossed the line, thus denying England an ill deserved but crucial equaliser just before half time. Going in level at the interval, the initiative would have been with the three lions and they would not have had to chase the game.
Perhaps, but England were only trailing by a goal at the restart , there was no need for them to embark on the sort of senseless kamikaze attacking play , reminiscent of the Japanese Imperial Air Force circa 1944!
Wave after wave of desperate English attacks foundered around the German penalty box and it was only a matter of time before their opponents capitalised. Not since Lord Cardigan led the British cavalry headlong towards the Russian guns at Balaclava have such futile , senseless tactics been employed. The slick, counter- attacking Germans took full advantage, inflicting on the English their worst defeat in a World Cup . Indeed there was more danger of Thomas Muller following over from laughing than anyone in red preventing him from scoring the third and fourth goals.
It is no surprise then, that coach Fabio Capello has also borne the brunt of criticism. Hired at a cost of £6m per year to install some discipline to the squad and finally deliver on the promises this team has been making for eight years, he has severely damaged his reputation during the debacle. Rumours of unrest in the camp and stories of David Beckham having to intervene to prevent an altercation between Steven Gerrard and John Terry undermined his supporter's claims that his man management skills would be a valuable asset in the campaign and Capello's trusted 4-4-2 formation , which had brought him so much success over the past two decades seemed particularly ineffective against the fashionable 4-2-3-1 tactics adopted by many of the nations at this tournament, including Germany. The English midfield appeared to be overrun on several occasions as Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry seemed unable or unwilling to followed the energetic and willing Teutonic runners .
Another criticism that can be levelled at Capello is one which plagued his immediate predecessors, Sven Goran Erikson and Steve McLaren: that there were too many " sacred cows" in the squad that the coach was unwilling to sacrifice. On the morning of the game, former Scottish international Craig Burley suggested that Capello should consider dropping Wayne Rooney , who looked unfit and out of sorts , but Burley doubted that the Italian had the guts to make such a big decision in a such a vitally important match. This column agrees with Burley and suggests that Lampard, who has rarely replicated his Chelsea form in the white shirt should also have been dropped ,allowing two sitting midfielders and three attackers to play behind a lone striker .
It is almost inconceivable that Capello would be wary of benching his top stars, given his reputation for ruthlessness at Milan and Real Madrid where several top dogs, including David Beckham,
were brought to heel , if not neutered. However, this does seem to be the case and the team lined up as expected , with the usual suspects in place.
Also , the aforementioned second half tactics employed by England in Bloemfontein were unrecognisable from the ones Capello has favoured throughout his managerial career. The cavalier replaced the cautious, which may suggest that the players decided to ignore their coach's half time instructions and improvised, to disastrous effect. It would certainly explain Don Fabio's manic facial expressions and frantic hand gestures on the touchline!
The long English season, without the winter break that is common in most other European countries is also blamed for the lifeless performances of the team. Unlike the majority of their continental rivals, English clubs play in two domestic cup competitions. With the expanded European competitions, it is surely time for the meaningless League Cup to be abolished and the twenty team Premiership to be cut to a more manageable size. It can be no coincidence that the majority of top players who missed the World Cup, Essien, Ballack. Ferdinand, Bosingwa, or struggled for fitness during the tournament: Rooney, Torres, Drogba, play in the English top division, widely regarded as the most physically demanding in the world. But others such as Tevez of Argentina a Kuyt of Holland appear not to have been affected by the rigours of a Premiership season.
The bottom line however , is that this squad is not very good ! For all the hype and excitement of the Premiership, there are not enough good English playersplaying in it and those that do, lack the tactical flexibility evident in other national teams. While Lukas Podolski or David Villa nominally, centre forwards, can adapt to playing on the German or Spanish left flanks respectively, Steven Gerrard, a midfield player, clearly cannot when asked to do so for England. John Terry, allegedly one of the best defenders in the world, ran about like a headless chicken, unable to deal with a British style punt from the goalkeeper that led to Germany's first goal, nor the more sophisticated and intelligent play of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller. Ozil plays in a position completely alien to the English game, in the "hole " between the midfield and the striker, and which seems to baffle every English defence that encounters it. Ronaldinho for Brazil in 2002 and Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006 have caused English back fours all sorts of problems.
In those two tournaments, England were expected to play a lot better than they did and progress beyond the quarter final stages,but could not . Add to those disappointments, a quarter final exit in the 2004 European Championships and a failure to qualify for that competition two years ago and it is a wonder that the nation retained such confidence in this team. Sadly for them it was misplaced. The "Golden Generation" were made of iron pyrite after all.