Friday, June 25, 2004
  We Mugged Ourselves
The goal, of course, should have been allowed. But the same principles of natural justice that have benignly presided over Euro 2004, ensuring the exits of the conservative Italians and the ambitionless Germans, last night saw an inhibited England fall to an effervescently positive, if somewhat guileless, Portugal side.

The game was there for the taking but - as against Brazil two years ago - England inexplicably retreated into their shells. Portugal, like Brazil, are an accomplished, but eminently beatable side; despite England retreating ever deeper, they conjured very few scoring opportunities worth the name.

The early goal was of course a killer. How many teams, I wonder, have taken the lead in this tournament and have gone on to lose? It's become a running theme. But England never look comfortable with an early lead. Remember Shearer's goal against the Germans in Euro 96, Owen's against Brazil in Japan. The goal introduced a paralysing fear that was only dissipated once Portugal themselves had socred. Only after Postiga's equalizer, and again, after Rui Costa's superb strike, did England look remotely purposive or threatening.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of Rooney's exit of course. It was a double loss. First, there is obviously the matter of his individual talent, his running power, speed and linkplay, unmatched by anyone else in the tournament. Secondly, and of at least equal importance, is the tactical changes Rooney's absence forced. Would that we'd got Teddy Sheringham on the bench. Because what was lost was England's ability to start attacks from deep, to keep the opposition on the back foot with penetrating runs and passes from the hole. Without Rooney, we reverted to the dread two-striker nightmare last seen, I think, in England's disappointing opening game of the Japan World Cup against Sweden, when Vassell and Owen were again paired. With it came the same tendency to bang hopeful (but hopeless) long balls forward to the two centre-forwards, stranded uselessly in front of the play, isolated from a midfield that had retreated to the extent that they were functioning as an extra back four.

In retrospect, Sven should have sent on Hargreaves (our most reliable and effective midfield player last night by some distance; England looked revivified as soon as he appeared) and pushed Scholes up into the hole. That way, we would have kept our shape and could stuck to our game plan.

Who knows what would have happened if Rooney hadn't been injured? Idle speculation of course.

On the positive side, the defence were excellent. From being a player one could never be fully confident in, Sol Campbell has emerged as a quietly but ruthlessly and imperiously efficient centre-half, the match for anyone in the world at the moment. And never let it be said that Ashley Cole cannot defend. Last night, Cole - scandalously given a 4 out of 10 in the Times this morning - was magnificent, tenacious and strong, snuffing out the fancy-dancing preening of the smug, simulating Ronaldo (Moan U and a teenager; forgive me if I can't summon up much affection for him).

It was the midfield that lost England the match. Gerrard was leg-weary, mediocre and impetuous (Steven, it really is not necessary to play a quick, first-time pass every fucking time you get the ball). Beckham has taken disciplined self-effacement to the point of anonymity. Scholes never really sparked and Lampard, while he merited his inclusion because of his goal threat, did little else. One of these must go and Hargreaves must start if England are to progress.

Good luck to Portugal. They certainly deserved the win, and while the tabloid headlines caused me to chuckle ('You Swiss Banker' - The Sun), they're wrong. We weren't robbed. We mugged ourselves.

Cole was given 4/10? Even with cramps, he was taking the ball off Ronaldo. The defenders were mostly great, except on the two goals: on the first one they for some reason decided to hang out in the 6-yard box when they easily could have put the Portugese attackers offside, on the second goal, what was P. Neville thinking?
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