The World Cup picture

Published : Sep 26, 2009 00:00 IST

There was a strange and deafening silence in the laudatory English Press on the salient fact that, in the World Cup qualifiers against England, Croatia were without little Luka Modric, badly injured, alas, while playing for Spurs. He is one of the finest, most accomplished and inventive inside-forwards, and without him, Croatia are like a car without an engine, writes Brian Glanville.

Is Fabio Capello dicing with death? He now tells us that he’ll consider it a failure should England not win the World Cup final next year. This on the back of a so far 100% record in the qualifiers and a 5-1 thrashing of Croatia at Wembley. But, while I think that England should make a decent enough show of it in South Africa, I cannot at this moment see them as eventual victors.

In the first place, there was a strange and deafening silence in the laudatory English Press on the salient fact that Croatia were without little Luka Modric badly injured, alas, while playing for Spurs. One of the finest, most accomplished and inventive inside-forwards — yes the term is surely germane — in the world, Modric, supreme when Croatia previously came to Wembley and humiliated England, keeps the wheels turning with his team. To vary the metaphor, without him, Croatia are like a car without an engine. And England, meanwhile, have no one like him; and no one like the four little Spanish midfield contestants, Cesc Fabregas among them but unsure of a place, who make up such an inventive and effective force.

There are, alas, manifest weaknesses in this England team which may or may not be put right by the time it comes to South Africa. First, in goal where there is no obvious solution. David “Calamity” James is probably the most gifted of the claimants, but he is well on the way to 40 now, increasingly subject to injury and, of course, for all his talents, supremely erratic. Ben Foster, at Manchester United, but by no means sure of his place when the veteran Dutch ’keeper, Van der Sar, reports fit, would, till this season, have been my choice.

He has gallantly overcome long team injury, had in fact played for England when on loan to Watford and has now done so again, but there have been times at Wembley both with club and country, when he has looked indecisive.

West Ham’s Green, the current goalkeeper, has been given a second chance after earlier failings, but though he is unquestionably a talented ’keeper, he, too, has his shaky moments. Kirkland of Wigan, another who has had his problems with injury, now insists that he is fit again and indeed, if he can avoid further injuries, may have a decent chance of coming into international contention.

And what of the right-back role? True, Glen Johnson, with a dazzling overlapping run, set up a goal against Croatia, but even in these generally easy circumstances, there are those who did not find him guiltless when Croatia scored their solitary goal. And guilty he surely was in the previous game, when, outwitted by a clever Slovenian, who then crossed, for his team to score. Not forgetting his abysmal start to the supposedly easy, previous, match in Kazakhstan, when his careless play let in his left flank opponent, which all but resulted in a goal.

Yet, who is there to replace him? Phil Neville, for long the previous incumbent, is permanently injured and surely in any case past it. Time, perhaps, to give another chance to young Micah Richards who showed such early promise, did well in defence and overlapping attack for Manchester City and England, then, somewhat mysteriously, lost form. He seems to have regained it now. Johnson may have cost Liverpool a grotesquely exaggerated £17 million, but he still doesn’t convince. As a defender.

As I have said, there is no clear candidate to “invent the game,” as the Italians say, Modric style. Not that the Italians themselves have anyone to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Gianni Rivera and Giancarlo Antognoni. Though they have seemingly revived in their two World Cup qualifiers, with a couple of modest victories, following their appalling form in the Confederations Cup in South Africa — humiliated not just by Brazil, but by outsiders USA — is an all too fresh memory. The 2006 World Cup winners, the heroes, are all too manifestly tired, and where is the new young talent coming from to replace them?

Turning again to England, at least they have a Warne Rooney in his most effective and incisive form, but must Capello persist up front with the opaque Emile Heskey? Yes, he is big, strong, holds the ball up well, but how often does he do what a striker is meant to do; namely, score? After the coruscating displays by the much smaller, far quicker, Jermian Defoe, both against Holland and Slovenia, each time as an electrifying substitute, you might have thought that Defoe would have started against Croatia. Not at all. When he did come on as a sub, it wasn’t even at half-time, but well after the second-half had started; which may explain why he wasn’t as dynamic as before.

One’s mind irresistibly goes back to the World Cup finals at Wembley, in 1966, when Alf Ramsey persisted to the last with Liverpool’s Roger Hunt as a striker. Alf’s answer to criticism, which brought him sceptical response, was that Hunt was “making space.” How vividly I still remember him throwing away two fine, first-half chances against Germany, in the final.

The return to effervescent form of Aaron Lennon on the right-flank, reminiscent of how he played, when he was allowed to, in the World Cup finals of 2006 in Germany, made it all the more absurd that one-paced, one-trick pony (right-footer from distance) David Beckham should have been brought on in Lennon’s place, near the end, to win yet another cheap cap. With Theo Walcott still to return on the right, Aston Villa’s James Milner showing his stuff in Holland, what earthly point is there in persisting with Beckham?

Meanwhile, at present, Steven Gerrard, unquestionably one of the outstanding members of the team, is still deployed, right-footed as he is and no real winger, on the left-flank. It does mean that Frank Lampard gets a free hand in central midfield; but at the expense of a true left-flanker — Milner for one — and the danger that, with Gerrard so often moving inside, an adept overlapping full-back could well exploit the space. This team has possibilities indeed, but changes are needed.

Brazil, so disappointing in the Confederations Cup, even if they won it, humiliated the eternal foe, Argentina, 3-1 in Rosario then beat Chile 4-2 at home. Manager and ex-skipper Dunga has often been criticised for over-functional football, but the goals are flowing now; and Luisao of Benfica has been put up front with the prolific Luis Fabiano, supported by Kaka and when fit, by Robinho. Among the favourites.

Germany? An influx of talent, some of non-German origin, from the victorious Under-21 team will bring fresh life and ideas to the side. Holland are not quite the force they were but must be respected. Argentina under Maradona are in ill-selected chaos, using played out veterans. They may yet have to play off to qualify.

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