Saturday, June 12, 2010
Mixed fortunes for Capello's big calls
At either end of the spine lurk the two men who can turn a mediocre team into a successful one, or cost a fine side dearly in both penalty areas. A great goalkeeper and centre-forward are invaluable assets but England arrived in South Africa with doubts surrounding the identities of the furthest man forwards and back respectively.
• England 1-1 United States
• Skipper Gerrard backing Green
• Top Six: England howlers
• Carlisle: Luck of the draw
• Match Gallery
On his World Cup bow, Fabio Capello had two major decisions to make. One can be called a qualified success; the other, sadly, was not. Lacking a world-class No.1 and No.9, the Italian turned to his No.12 and No.21, Robert Green and Emile Heskey. For the former, the American dream turned sour; the latter, however, was reborn against the USA in the 1-1 draw in Rustenburg.
Heskey's is the more heart-warming tale. This was one day when he was not the scapegoat. The forward with the build of a heavyweight boxer has a habit of resembling a punchbag. He is a target man, in more ways than one. He is an easy target. Few of us can honestly claim we haven't mocked Heskey at some stage. As has been noted often recently, he was outscored by the Nigerian goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, this season.
Nevertheless, Capello's faith was significant and Heskey's impact was almost immediate. A neat reverse pass, guided into the path of Steven Gerrard, supplied the fourth-minute opener. Thereafter, he combined effectively with Wayne Rooney and proved an efficient outlet by linking play.
But praise has to be qualified. The usual failing was apparent. Rampaging through the middle to complete a one-two with Aaron Lennon, his shot was directed straight at Tim Howard. It was an effort of insufficient conviction from a player without a strike in three months. One former England World Cup striker, Michael Owen, was infamously described as "not a natural goalscorer" by his manager, Glenn Hoddle. In Heskey's case, it is indisputable. For those who are counting, it is seven goals in 59 caps, a pertinent statistic whenever others don't supply the finishes. And, in a draw, his miss came at a cost.
The debate, then, can continue. There is an understandable allure to the idea of a Gerrard-Rooney combination, offering an explosiveness and dynamism that Heskey cannot provide. But his most effective display for some time suggested he will retain his place against Algeria on Friday.
That, in turn, would mark an improvement after his previous tournament. Heskey's personal history shows the opening game has a significance; his involvement in Euro 2004 was limited to a cameo in the first game where he clumsily conceded a foul, saw Zinedine Zidane convert the resulting free kick and spent the rest of the competition on the bench.
That is the fate that beckons for Green. Given his reluctance to settle on a first-choice goalkeeper, there must be a temptation for Capello to opt for David James or Joe Hart in Cape Town after the biggest blunder of the tournament to date. A World Cup can provide opportunities for global ridicule, as Green may discover.
It may not be the moment to point it out, but there is something likeable about him. Green was self-deprecating enough to have 'England's No.6' stitched into his gloves in 2008; for 39 minutes, he appeared merely the least worst candidate in the manager's mind.
Then Clint Dempsey's rather unthreatening shot escaped his grasp. As is the wont on such occasions, it seemed to cross the line in slow motion. The errant right hand was held in apology, a haunted look lingered, understandably, on Green's face.
Until then, he had seemed the solid but unspectacular choice; this was an instant that was spectacularly bad. Partial redemption arrived with a save from Jozy Altidore, a powerhouse of a striker who can appear the American Heskey; that is part compliment, part criticism. A fine stop, however, cannot fully compensate for a gruesome mistake.
In the process, the English tradition of undistinguished starts was maintained and extended. An opening draw means parallels can be made with the successful campaigns of 1966 and 1990; spurning a lead was more reminiscent of 2002 and the European Championships of 2000 and 2004, while Green's error brought back unwanted memories of David Seaman, Paul Robinson and Scott Carson. But a match where England had more shots and ended level only served to reinforce the impression that games are decided in each box. And on the major stage, England ticked some boxes. But not enough yet.