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May 28, 2008

England expose U.S. shortcomings

England 2-0 United States

On the day that Brian McBride announced he would be leaving Fulham to return to the USA, it was fitting that the U.S. side he retired from provided a performance against England that would see him welcomed back into the international fold with open arms.

The giant frontman has long been considered the only player from the current crop of U.S. stars to have any realistic shot of making it into the England side and on the evidence of the action from Wembley on Wednesday night, he remains just that.

Talk before the game had surrounded the U.S. hopes of causing an upset and David Beckham's conflict of interest, but without the 99-cap Landon Donovan they never really threatened and, instead, England boss Fabio Capello was left to run through a range of different substitute and formation options.

The last time the U.S. beat England was back in 1993, when a 2-0 win saw the now-L.A. Galaxy chief Alexi Lalas net the second goal. With one eye on Beckham's performance, Lalas can be forgiven for hoping his star turn would outshine his country and he wouldn't have to wait long.

As expected, England's passing was a cut above in the opening stages though, surprisingly, it was Beckham who looked out of sorts with some poor long ball attempts. Initially the long ball tactic towards Jermain Defoe up front bore little fruit, before Steven Gerrard worked some space and was fouled by Oguchi Onyewu.

Beckham's first chance to put a decent cross in provided the spark that England needed and they even had the ball in the net but a blast of the referee's whistle had ruled out Gerrard's volley. Playing behind Defoe, Gerrard and Rooney ran riot, given far too much space to roam by a lax U.S. defence, the duo obviously enjoyed their new found freedom and failure to pick up Gerrard from a clever training ground free-kick nearly produced the first goal, before an American head blocked the Liverpool skipper's shot.

At the other end, the U.S. rarely threatened and their best chance came as Eddie Johnson found space on the right before a last gasp glancing header from Wes Brown prevented the Fulham striker's cross from finding the head of Clint Dempsey.

Chants of 'USA, USA' were shouted down by the England masses, before Johnson again took advantage of some sloppy English defending to hit a tame shot into the arms of David James.

It was a wake-up call and England stepped on gas to start to control proceedings. Gerrard and Rooney combined brilliantly again to send the Liverpool skipper racing down the left. The out-of-sorts Defoe, however, could not match the brilliance of the build-up and his shot, unmarked from six yards, spun wide.

With England in the ascendancy, Beckham began to roam. Mopping up on the left wing, he returned to his favoured right before a foul on Wes Brown offered him the chance to swing in a trademark free-kick.

A footballer of the quality of Beckham only needs a few chances before making one count and John Terry was the recipient this time. A bullet header gave the Chelsea skipper something to smile about after a traumatic week and put England into a deserved lead.

Seven days ago Terry had missed from twelve yards out in Moscow, condemning Chelsea to defeat in the Champions League final and causing him to break down on the pitch in tears. No mistake this time though, albeit with his head, and the celebration from the skipper was clear for all to see.

One nearly became two when Defoe was fouled on the edge of the box, only for Beckham to turn down the opportunity of a shot to tee-up Gerrard - who could only find the wall. Owen Hargreaves may have favoured the free-kick after his cultured effort had kickstarted Man Utd's title challenge against Arsenal from a similar distance, but with Beckham in the side Hargreaves will always play second fiddle from dead-ball situations.

Indeed the #7 proved once more why he has the best right foot in the business with a beautifully floated ball towards Defoe just before the half, resulting in a booking for the outclassed Cherundolo. An unusually mediocre free-kick followed, but Beckham had already proved what he set out to do by the time the half-time whistle was blown.

Evidently a similar view was taken by Capello who replaced old with new at the break, bringing on the energetic David Bentley for the former skipper, amid howls of derision from the Beckham faithful. Before the half-time cup of coffee had even cooled though, England were given a scare as the Rovers man lost the ball with his first touch and Heath Pearce capitalised to race free down the left. His cross found Johnson in the box, but the striker lashed the shot inches wide.

Defoe continued to threaten without ever actually looking like he'd score - turning his man to smash a shot straight at replacement goalkeeper Brad Guzan and, despite not getting on the scoresheet, he played a part in England's second soon after.

A great one-touch move from the Pompey man to Barry sent Gerrard through a yawning gap in the U.S. defence and the midfielder finished coolly to cap a great personal performance with a goal.

It would be Defoe's last telling contribution to proceedings, as he was replaced by Peter Crouch and almost immediately the tall striker made more of an impression than his diminutive team-mate had done by swinging in a cross for Rooney. After yet another superb link between the United man and Gerrard, England nearly scored a third, but Guzan was out quickly to snuff out the danger.

Losing the will to surge forward in the second half, England shut up shop and set about defending their lead. David James had to be at his agile best to keep out Eddie Lewis' effort, but in truth, the U.S. never looked like breaking through.

With the fans that had made the journey pouring out of the stadium with ten minutes to go, England toyed with the opposition before the end and coach Capello was left pleased with the result.

'I'm very happy with the performance, thought they all played very well,' he said. 'The pressing and the tackling was very good, it's another step forward. I'm very happy for John Terry too after what happened, he's a natural leader. Today we saw the English style of playing.'

Beckham's move to the MLS may have brought about more attention to the game, but on this evidence the gap between the countries is as wide as ever. The U.S. will learn from their mistakes before they face a tough schedule of friendlies against Spain and Argentina at the start of June, but the confidence with which they approached the game may be seen as misplaced.

As for England, the sunshine of Trinidad & Tobago is next on the agenda before a summer without Euro 2008 starts in earnest. Tougher tests await.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool skipper occupied a position on the left side of midfield for most of the game, but was given licence to roam. Capello capitalised on his form for his club, playing off Fernando Torres, and Gerrard was immense all night.

ENGLAND VERDICT: Capello has proved England can win with Gerrard and Lampard in the side, although using Gerrard and Rooney behind Defoe was the real masterstroke. The two linked brilliantly and, with Beckham and Bentley proving the ammo and Hargreaves patrolling, all England need now is real goalscorer. Where was Dean Ashton?

U.S. VERDICT: More was expected from the Americans. Without Landon Donovan up front they lacked any cutting edge and really could have done with Beckham playing for their side to create a few chances. McBride could have made a difference.

NO ROOM FOR SENTIMENT: Becks proved he still has the golden touch with a free-kick to set up Terry's goal and was also presented with a commemorative gold 100th cap by Sir Bobby Charlton in front of a doubly adoring audience before the game. Tell that to Capello though, who had obviously seen enough of Becks' right boot and took him off at half-time.


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