Capello rediscovers Midas touch
Authoritative, accomplished, composed: it could hardly be said that England's 2-0 win over Wales was secured in the image of their manager given Fabio Capello's recent travails, but his players certainly produced an impressive performance for the Italian in Cardiff. On a day when leadership was the buzzword ahead of this Euro 2012 qualifier, Capello also got his key decisions correct, deciding upon an unexpected formation that produced a welcome win for the under-pressure manager, taking England back to the top of Group G on goal difference from Montenegro.
Irrespective of Wales' evident limitations, this was an afternoon that strengthened Capello's position as national coach, rather than weakened it as his contentious handling of the captaincy issue had done. The upshot from the change in armband was that the identity of the two skippers leading their teams out in Cardiff could not have been envisaged just weeks ago. One, Aaron Ramsey, was given the honour as a gesture of faith in a young man still finding his way back into the game, but whose undoubted ability contains the promise of a potentially bright future for his country. The other, John Terry, embodied the grievances of the past, with controversy surrounding the manner of his reappointment.
There was a contrast, too, in the dugouts, with one inexperienced manager taking charge of his country for the first time on home turf and hoping to harness native good will, and the other, a giant of the game, locked in a seemingly loveless marriage that some thought should have run its course after the World Cup.
But while for Gary Speed and Ramsey this tie would prove a chastening experience, it was a day that vindicated both Capello and Terry.
At Capello's behest, England lined up in a surprise 4-3-3 formation, with Scott Parker and Frank Lampard joining Jack Wilshere in midfield and Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young in wide positions either side of Darren Bent. No doubt England felt comfortable in adopting a more liberated, attacking shape with Wales' most potent weapon Gareth Bale sidelined due to injury.
In Bale's absence, Young and Glen Johnson felt free to surge forward, and the former in particular was excellent. With Theo Walcott, James Milner and Aaron Lennon out of the first XI, he made a compelling case for future inclusion when winning his 13th cap and was involved in both goals in a vibrant first half performance. Capello was effusive in his praise of Young: "This year he is a very good player. He played very well in Denmark, played well this evening and is playing well with Villa". The impressive Parker also earned praise from his manager.
England, restless in their pressing, as personified by the West Ham midfielder, and elusive in their movement, with Young at the forefront, were far too good in the opening 30 minutes and silenced a partisan home crowd that drowned out the sound of Miss Wales belting out 'God Save The Queen' prior to kick off with boos of terrible ferocity. Enmity also spilled over onto the pitch in the early stages as, unsurprisingly, Ashley Cole and Craig Bellamy become embroiled in a heated exchange. However, Welsh exuberance on and off the pitch was dented after only six minutes.
Terry, taking charge, embarked on an adventurous run, exchanged passes with Cole and fed Young, who was felled in the box by a clumsy challenge from Aston Villa team-mate James Collins. A certain penalty, though Speed would describe it as "soft", which Lampard converted. It was a big moment for the midfielder given the speculation that he could be exiled to the bench; a decision which would have deprived England of both the Chelsea man and the injured Steven Gerrard for the first time in a competitive game since the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Brazil in 2002. But Lampard had been handed a reprieve by Capello, and he took his chance to impress.
It got worse for Wales. After 15 minutes, Johnson supplied a sublime pass down the right flank, allowing Young to accelerate into space and square for Bent, who continued his excellent recent form for the national side by finishing first time into the roof of the net for his third international goal. In this intra-British rivalry it was time for the England fans to make their voices heard. "Are you Scotland in disguise?" was the cry.
Wales, 116th in the FIFA rankings, were being completely outclassed, their struggles personified by their new captain, Ramsey, who looked well out of his depth. It should be noted that the young Arsenal midfielder is yet to discover his best form following that horrendous injury, but the focus on the tiresome Terry debacle this week still detracted attention from what was an astonishing decision from Speed.
At 20, he is Wales' youngest ever skipper, and at times the occasion appeared too much for him. Keen to shine, Ramsey lost possession frequently in the face of England's pressing and one failed through ball left him clutching his head, an agonised look on his face. Meanwhile, interaction with the referee was also delegated to Bellamy at times. This was a steep learning curve for Ramsey, though Speed denied the midfielder had tried too hard to impress: "He wants to get on the ball and in the first half he was maybe a bit frustrated. We are not always going to play against teams as good as England."
Terry, by contrast, was impressive. Commanding at the back and exuding authority, he leads by example, on the pitch at least. After the furore surrounding his reinstatement, given Rio Ferdinand's persistent injury problems it appears to be the correct decision by Capello. The argument comes in whether the ends justified the muddled means, which have reportedly left Terry's predecessor furious.
England's captain and team both had a more strenuous start to the second half, but when Ramsey did execute a pass correctly to bisect the England defence, Wales were left to rue a poor touch from lone striker Steve Morison. On 63 minutes, Ramsey then teed himself up with a neat touch before lashing over the bar. Wales improved steadily as the game wore on, but a brutal first 45 minutes had opened up a chasm between the sides that could not be bridged.
Perhaps the Speed-Ramsey axis will be a force to be reckoned with in time, and the manager was at pains to emphasise in his post-match press conference that Wales are very much a work in progress, with World Cup 2014 qualification the long-term aim. "We are a developing squad, hopefully we can learn from this game and can benefit from it," Speed said. "After half-time I was delighted with the way they went about it. In two years' time hopefully we will benefit a lot from that."
But experience, not promise, won the day in Cardiff. The somewhat uneasy alliance of a much-criticised manager and his unpopular captain delivered the leadership required. England are leading from the front again in Group G of Euro 2012 qualifying.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ashley Young. Aaron Lennon has been a favourite of Capello in the past but the Tottenham man did not even make the bench. Clearly, Young impressed in training and he transferred that to the pitch. Full of clever touches and invention, his blistering pace allowed him to win the penalty and then set up Bent for the second. Parker was excellent in shielding the back four, but Young decided the game.
WALES VERDICT: Few would have expected a victory from a team ranked so low by FIFA and deprived of their star player, and Wales were completely unable to cope with England in the first half. A lack of quality in key areas was evident, and when the ball did roll to the likes of Ramsey and Bellamy, they were unable to make an impact. However, Wales did improve and avoided what could have been a heavy defeat.
ENGLAND VERDICT: After the 0-0 draw against Montenegro in their previous qualifier, this was a much more convincing performance and puts their campaign back on track. Capello's tactics were spot on, with the midfield and attack functioning excellently against admittedly poor opposition.
ROO IDIOT: The only negative aspect from an English perspective was a yellow card shown to Rooney which rules him out of the next qualifier against Switzerland. Amazingly, Capello revealed the striker was unaware he had incurred a suspension thanks to his unnecessary challenge on Joe Ledley. "He was surprised," Capello said, "because he didn't remember he was booked [going into the game]."