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Nov 12, 2011

Keep calm and carry on

After the poppycock came the giddiness. The innate nature of the England football team is to get its followers' hopes up, and just when a downbeat nation had written off the Euros as a bad job, along comes a defeat of the world's best international team.

• England 1-0 Spain: Lampard winner
• Lampard 'realistic' over Spain win
• Capello backs young stars to shine

Praise came from the direction of a coach with two Champions Leagues and a World Cup to his name. "They are very organised, they set out to take initiative and stop us taking the initiative," said Vicente Del Bosque, no less. "They carried out their plan quite nicely from the start." Yes, this was an England team he was talking about.

Fabio Capello had decided that the best time to experiment would be a game against a team already placed in the pantheon as one of the best of all time. Friendly or not, a manager can decide his very reputation by taking such risks. Capello, the unlikely gambler, played an unusual hand and was rewarded with his finest moment yet as England coach.

With heir apparent Harry Redknapp's legal matter now a subject for public consumption, the outgoing boss showed a glimpse of why he was hired in the first place. Spain is a country where he delivered two league titles in two separate spells and the pragmatism that made him a rather unloved success story at Real Madrid made a reappearance here.

"We prepared with this style." said Capello in an unusually cheery and effusive press conference. "We needed to focus every moment of the game. Playing against Spain is very difficult but the players and the crowd found confidence."

This victory and the commitment shown by missing his son's wedding for this match may not be enough to save a wracked public image but it will surely help. The Italian is expected to end his tenure with his adopted country remaining the perennial bridesmaid. Such an accusation was levelled at the Spanish for decades and while their recent dominance is a watermark that looks barely credible in Phil Jones' lifetime, let alone Capello's England reign, this win served as a significant restoration of faith.

The first half hour had met expectancy levels. A magic circle of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Alonso and Silva made Scott Parker and Frank Lampard, two of the Premier League's most in-form midfielders, look pedestrian, heavy-legged and hurried. Jones, a young player treated as experimental apparatus in high-pressure trips to Anfield for his club, and against the world's best here, has much to learn as a midfielder. It may not be aiding his development to have been by-passed so easily and so often.

Lampard is a man with a wondrous goalscoring record from midfield yet Jones was often to be found as England's most advanced midfielder, the closest link to Darren Bent's tail-chasing exercise up front. His attributes are undoubted but what he needs is the comfort of playing in one position, rather than the three he has attempted already this season. But that must be registered as a minor complaint about a player still in his teens on a happy night for his team.

England looked better once Jones had departed, though by then they had their lead and Lampard and Parker were now significant figures in the game. In the opening minutes of the second half, Lampard recovered from his early labouring to nod home from point-blank range once Bent had climbed highest to head on to Iker Casillas' post. Spain would continue to dominate possession but they were often worried at the back, with substitute Danny Welbeck a particular nuisance to them. By then, Parker had control of midfield, Spain's 'tiki taka' rudely interrupted by the Tottenham tyro's energy and determination.

The Spanish do not so much aim to viscerate their opposition as suffocate. It is too easy to suggest that they are 'Barcelona sin Messi' but a comparison needs to be drawn. David Silva, the Premier League's best player, takes the place of Messi, the Primera Liga's prime mover, but he is not a destructive goal machine in the image of the Argentine. As befitting the slower pace of international football in general, Spain pick at an opponent's lock, while Barcelona smash the doors down. The 'false nine' is a hugely fashionable conceit in the modern game, yet what Spain lacked was a centre-forward, a fulcrum off whom Silva and David Villa could flit. When Fernando Torres did arrive, England had bedded in, with confidence flowing through pumping veins.

England, with all four of Joleon Lescott, Phil Jagielka, Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole outstanding, defended doggedly, with a disciplined offside trap chief among their methods. Spain dominated possession yet searched in vain for a cutting edge that never appeared. For Del Bosque, this match will serve as a forerunner of the type of match that his team will face in the early rounds of Euro 2012. A massed defence, and a snatched goal against the run of play is how Switzerland beat them in their World Cup opener and here was a rather chilling reminder of that frustrating afternoon in Durban. Difficult as it may seem, they can be got at.

Getting them frustrated can help too. Cesc Fabregas and Ramos picked up twin bookings within minutes of each other after the concession of England's goal. While progress to the finals was completed with 100% perfection, their friendly results have not been quite so dominant. In abandoning this fixture as a 'friendly' and approaching it in the style of the 'test match' seen in rugby and cricket, a Spain training exercise was converted by England into a real football contest. By the time Spain had realised they faced a genuine test, their opponents' system was working, and the crowd was on their side.

In the words of Del Bosque, England had "carried out their manager's order to the absolute letter". Yes, he did say that about an England team under Fabio Capello, and one without its captain in Terry and best player in Rooney. Now, how to dampen expectation and stem the flow of growing excitement? Perhaps Tuesday's match with Sweden will provide just that function. Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Joleon Lescott
Scott Parker, ever garlanded, won the official award but the showing of Lescott at centre half was his best yet for his country and emblematic of some fine recent form for Manchester City. Disciplined, organised and doing the last-ditch stuff well, John Terry may now have other worries on his mind.

ENGLAND VERDICT: It was not pretty but it was effective. This was a team performance of a type that is a distant memory from the early Capello days. The experimentation with Jones did not work out but there were plenty of other positive signs. Now to keep calm and carry on.

SPAIN VERDICT: A group of fancy-dan ne'er do wells bound to fall flat when the going gets tough? Not at all, they have earned their place at the top but this game showed that if not all the parts are working then the world's best can be vulnerable. Xavi and Iniesta were merely average, and an attacking counterpoint was distinctly lacking.

THE ENGLISH FOOTBALL PUBLIC: John Terry was applauded while taking his warm-up as an unused sub. Fernando Torres was booed to high heaven when he came on. Torres' crime? Playing for Chelsea, leaving Liverpool, or being Spanish? Baffling, and worrying too. But, sadly, all too predictable.

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