England strolled off the field in Sofia yesterday evening and had the right to feel pleasantly smug with themselves. From start to finish England controlled a lacklustre Bulgaria who offered little threat. Rooney shone with two goals and an increasingly more prosperous hairline whilst others also impressed. Despite all this it would be almost ludicrous to get carried away with this victory which some England followers are almost guaranteed to do.
Firstly let me address the potentially gargantuan issue of the evening – the new kit. Oliver Holt (The Mirror) and Matt Dickinson (The Times) were quick to criticise the electric blue/navy ensemble. Apparently it just isn’t England. Yeah? Well fan-bloody-tastic. Perhaps if it isn’t ‘England’ then they may actually get to a semi-final in it. Or at least go out of a tournament gracefully. The top itself looks good (I think) so who cares? England have had blue, grey and even yellow away tops over the years so it’s not exactly a complete change of tradition. And judging on last night’s performance the team seem to get on quite well with it so let’s just move on shall we. Kit = thumbs up.
I don’t want to undersell yesterday’s performance, it was good – very good. The back four looked solid, Cahill and Smalling fitting into their respective roles with ease. Scott Parker and Gareth Barry provided regimented protection and allowed the front four to flourish – which they did. Rooney was always a danger and he was aptly supported by the craft and pace of those behind him.
Bulgaria were however, for want of some better words, bloody awful. England carved them opened far too easily and their attack provided very little to worry Joe Hart’s goal. They are now without the retired Dimitar Berbatov but I don’t think his lethargic presence would really have changed much. But you can only beat what is put in front of you.
England seemed somewhat departed from the static performances that we have become used to in recent years. There was a bright fluidity to their play particularly in midfield. The fact that they still have Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard to welcome back is obviously a bonus. For me the fact that Frank Lampard was dropped is also a bonus. Lamps hasn’t played consistently well in an England shirt for over 5 years now. He was very disappointing in the last 2 World Cups and at age 33 his international career is probably on the wind down now. England managers have too often selected players on reputation rather than form and thankfully that looks to have changed here. He has a new career beckoning as a celebrity couple with Miss Bleakley anyway, so every cloud.
Wales’ surprising win against Montenegro last night means that England’s progression from their group is almost in touching distance. What does this all mean for Euro 2012 then? Well, to be honest not much. Whilst we take hope from England’s performance it doesn’t really mean too much when it comes to facing the big teams on the big stage. Keeping the ball against Bulgaria is nothing compared to what it would be like at trying to keep it against a Spain or a Germany. In fact getting hold of the ball would be tough enough. Whilst the promise of the likes of Smalling, Cahill and Wilshere is obviously something to be excited about, it may be too soon to expect them to get the better of Europe’s elite on a regular basis.
But what about the main man? Could he not fire England to Euro 2012 victory? No not Emile Heskey, Wayne Rooney of course. The Sun thinks so. However this is the kind of idiotic optimism that puts immense pressure on the England players. Pressure that they seem to regularly wilt under. Rooney has had a fantastic start to the season but his goals last night were his first for England in just under a year. Not exactly stunning form. Especially when even Capello seems to be somewhat undecided on where to play Rooney. Is he the out-and-out striker or should he be playing in the hole, linking midfield and attack? Whilst he is rather good in both positions, for me he needs to play as England’s main striker. Purely for the fact that there are no better options. He is easily our best choice in terms of scoring goals and should be utilised as such. Goals are hard to come by at major tournaments and I think it must be clear that Rooney is the only potential man who could step forward and get 5 or 6 goals next summer. But I don’t think that A. This will happen and B. It will be enough to see England into the last 4 in Poland/Ukraine.
If anything, Rooney’s sensational early club form this year demonstrates the need for more breaks for the England players. ‘Wazza’ himself has attributed his great start to having a relaxing summer, taking a break and coming back much more refreshed. And of course having a new rug on his forehead. England managers and players alike have often bemoaned the lack of a winter break in the Premier League and the effect that it has on England players in major tournaments. To be fair, they are right. England often looked burnt out when it comes to summer. Other European nations have winter breaks and it must allow for the players to be fresher when the season ends. The problem in this country though is that the Premier League and The FA are two separate identities. It doesn’t matter much to the Prem if England crash out next summer. Unless these two organisations can agree on some common goals, don’t expect a winter break to be gracing our domestic seasons anytime soon.
All in all we should be pleased with England’s performance yesterday eve. Of course we should. But for god sake let’s not get carried away. They dominated the match, Rooney looked very dangerous and we have promising new blood coming through. But Bulgaria aren’t half the team of some of Europe’s elite. Our technique is inferior to Spain et al and that is just a fact. Can I see England going out in the quarters next summer with 20 different excuses and crying that they were too tired? Unfortunately yes. But in some of Kevin Keegan’s famous words, “I would love it, love it” if I was to be proved wrong.