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Feb 6, 2013

England pounce on lazy Brazil

It was just like watching Brazil. That's if you consider Brazil to be an ill-prepared team struggling for identity and looking for a formula. Such complaints have been constantly levelled at England down the years but it was the five-times world champions who looked bereft and disorganised.

The concept of the friendly international is a troubled one in football. In rugby and cricket, the game's closest equivalents as world games, there are test matches between international teams. To label a game friendly lessens its importance, especially when historic giants take each other on. England played as if they considered this as a competitive match, a full international in its ancient sense. Victory was celebrated with gusto, though the credibility of their achievement was somewhat diminished by the visible laxness of Brazil, who in mitigation had trained together just once after arrival in London.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, presiding over his first match as national coach since winning the 2002 World Cup in Yokohama, was in experimental mode, blending old favourites and new fancies. Neither faction will have impressed a host country beginning to get panicky about prospects of avoiding embarrassment at their own World Cup. Such concerns looked wholly understandable.

Roy Hodgson's approach was far more ambitious. It resulted in a full-strength England team giving their best showing under Hodgson. Brazilian flair was negated by English athleticism and determination and the pyrotechnics were by no means confined to the South American visitors.

Envious glances might have been cast at a few of Hodgson's options. Wayne Rooney is surely preferable to the sluggishness that Ronaldinho and Luis Fabiano exhibited. Judging by the strikers Scolari employed, there are distinct problems in that department. Fabiano, the hothead who never looked quite good enough to lead the line at South Africa 2010, was meek before half time, and replaced by heavy-looking Fred.

Leandro Damiao and Willian, two big names from the transfer window, were not even in the squad. Fred's impact with a goal and another shot that hit the crossbar provided some solace, but 2014's hosts look short of striking class. A clumsy late slip also suggested that Fred was no inarguable panacea. To win the World Cup in their Brazilian backyard, an expectation they cannot fail to meet, requires a striker of the class of previous generations. The new Romario or Ronaldo is yet to be unearthed.

Ashley Cole and Ronaldinho were the sole survivors of the countries' last competitive meeting, Shizuoka 2002, where the eventual champions ended England's dreaming. Coincidence dictated that both would win their 100th cap on their reunion. While Ronaldinho took part in a presentation, Cole chose not to. Instead, Steven Gerrard took official acclaim for passing that mark against Sweden in November. Cole satisfied himself with the applause that greeted his name when the teams were read at kick-off.

Neither centurion lasted beyond the break. Both 32, it was Ronaldinho who looked far more depreciated by time, though Cole did not much enjoy playing against Oscar, looking far happier than of late in a Chelsea shirt.

Ronaldinho, a former world player of the year, suffered in stark comparison to his previous pre-eminence. The feint and body swerve are still employed. They just take far longer to pull off. They are hugely less effective too. When Jack Wilshere paid the penalty for a handball, Ronaldinho stepped up gaily, and far too casually. Joe Hart saved to his left, and the rebound was cleared too. The one-time prince of Brazilian football had blown the chance to win over his old boss. He waddled off at half-time, looking a man incapable of arresting visible decline.

The battle of the current boy wonders handed further honours to England. Neymar repeated the fitful flitting of his previous match in this stadium, the Olympic football final. Early on, he was beaten for pace by Gary Cahill, no speed merchant he. Thereafter, he was negligible. The hype did not look worth believing, though Scolari blamed a lack of preparation for Neymar's inability to recreate his club form for Santos.

Hodgson handed credit for Neymar's quiet night to his defenders. "He runs with the ball very well. It was pretty obvious what he's about," said Hodgson. "Corporately, as a team we didn't allow him to isolate one defender."

"I think it was a physical problem that we have," was how cheery Uncle Phil explained his team's shortcomings and those of Neymar in particular. He still looked richly happy to be back in England, perhaps mindful of a hot reception back home.

Wilshere, meanwhile, repeatedly surged deep into Brazil's backline, always seeking involvement, granted creative responsibility by Steven Gerrard's anchor role. The captain was disciplined and determined in support."Very good," was Scolari's brief but glowing assessment of Wilshere.

The young Gunner's zeal galvanised a previous prodigy in Rooney. The younger man played in Theo Walcott, whose shot was blocked. Rooney fizzed the loose ball into the goal for England's first and enjoyed himself from there on, his passing especially good. His neat flick, of the type Ronaldinho once perfected and now only aspires to, set up Frank Lampard's winner. The veteran, on for a neat and tidy Tom Cleverly and nearing his own century, scored with a shot that resembled a nine-iron chip. The ball rimmed the cup and eventually nestled in the net.

England's winner wiped out what Hodgson called a "mad spell" at the beginning of the second half. Cahill's loose pass found only Fred and the substitute's shot, with considerable bulk behind it, screamed past Hart. Moments later, a Smalling error allowed Fred another chance. Hart was beaten again, though the crossbar kept the ball out.

Rooney's visible anger showed off his desire to beat Brazil. Cahill's dejection at his error and a goalward header saved soon after revealed this as a collective determination that was eventually rewarded.

England had beaten Brazil. Now to answer the question of whether they will actually qualify for Brazil next year.

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