However much I had hoped to see England reach South Africa with a 100% record in qualifying, I must admit I’m not too disappointed about the defeat in Ukraine. Indeed, the performance of England’s 10 lions against the 11 Ukrainians fighting tooth and nail for a place at the World Cup was, in the second half especially, quite encouraging. For much of the game they still looked the better side, and against Ukraine, who themselves reached the quarter finals of the last World Cup, that’s no bad thing.
What is worrying though, is the way in which the defeat came about. While much of the pre-match talk concerned England’s ‘problem positions’ (goalkeeper, right-back, right-midfield) it was two of our supposed strong points that let us down, namely Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole. What’s worse, is that it’s not the first time that each of these players has made a costly mistake in a high profile match. So what does that say for England’s summer prospects?
It was Rio’s lack of concentration that allowed Artem Milevskiy to get through on goal and forced Rob Green to make a desperate dive for the ball. While certainly mis-timed, Green’s attempt to smother at the feet of his attacker was the only plausible way of preventing a goal and there are few occasions of that nature when a ‘keeper can take the ball cleanly and avoid giving away a penalty. It was Rio’s mistake therefore, that saw England reduced to 10 men for much of the game and made a positive result nigh on impossible to come by.
It was Ashley Cole though, whose error actually cost England a goal (thanks to Andriy Schevchenko’s errant spot-kick) after he dallied in possession for far too long and was caught out. The ball was eventually deflected into the net off his chest too but while David James would have been able to save the initial effort, I don’t blame Cole for attempting to block the shot, that was just bad luck more than anything.
The thing is though, these two players have made similar mistakes in the not too distant past. It was Ashley Cole’s backpass that gifted Kazakhstan a goal at Wembley a year ago, a mistake that didn’t eventually cost England but certainly made the already unpopular player a target of the boo-boys at Wembley. And Rio’s form for Manchester United this season has been very unconvincing, with his disastrous error in the Manchester derby almost costing United all three points.
Now make no mistake about it, these are two players that I rate very highly. Cole, when on top form (as he has been for Chelsea thus far this season), is probably the best left back in the world at present and while I wouldn’t go so far in my praise of Rio, there’s no doubt that when he plays to his best he’s an asset to any team and a dead cert to lineup alongside John Terry at the heart of England’s defence.
The question is though, are these mistakes from these players just freak occurences or are they likely to cost England on the biggest stage of all next year in South Africa? Because that would surely be a risk that Capello could not afford; sure we can shrug off a defeat to Ukraine in a ‘dead rubber’ match safe in the knowledge we’ve already qualified, but if this happened in the World Cup Finals, things wouldn’t be so rosy.
I’m not too worried about Ashley Cole though. Much as I loathe him on a personal level as the embodiment of modern day greedy footballers, he is more often than not an excellent player. What’s most impressive about him is that although deadly going forward (like Glen Johnson) he is also a more than capable defender and never shirks his defensive duties (unlike Glen Johnson). It’s true that he has made a couple of high profile errors that have cost England, but I wonder if we don’t play a part in that.
There’s no hiding the animosity that the average English fan holds towards the player nicknamed (for obvious reasons) ‘Cashley’. And while these weren’t openly aired on such a large scale before that mistake at Wembley in October last year, Cole would have known that he didn’t really have the full support of his home crowd – a sensation that at best would disappoint any player and at worst would greatly unsettle them.
If you were playing football in front of ninety odd thousand Englishmen with the Three Lions on your chest and you felt malice emanating from the majority of them towards you, I think it’s fair to say that your mind not be entirely on the football. Now I’m not saying this is an excuse for Cole, and as a professional you’d like him to be able to put that sort of thing to the back of his mind but he’s human after all, and if I’d been roundly booed by my countrymen as he was, I’d remember that each and every time I pulled on that shirt.
I’m not saying that Capello should drop Cole then, far from it. England have two fantastic left-backs in Wayne Bridge and especially Leighton Baines who could probably step into that slot adequately but Cole is a better player than both and a huge asset to Capello. No, I think that it would be good if we got behind Cole every time he puts on an England shirt between now and the World Cup. If we give him the support that he deserves as an England player and get behind him, I’m fairly sure his mind will remain firmly ‘on the ball’ and his slip ups should become a thing of the past.
As for Rio though, I’m less convinced. I said the other day that Capello will continue to play his best side in each and every game up until the World Cup because it will give his team the greatest chance to gel and form good combinations, but on current form Rio shouldn’t be playing for England, full stop. He’s suffered greatly from injuries over the last year or so and clearly is not match fit either mentally or physically.
That leaves a pretty hefty conundrum for Capello though. As I said earlier, if everyone’s playing to their full potential, Ferdinand would partner JT at the World Cup next year. However, if Ferdinand doesn’t recover his form in time for South Africa then Capello needs to have explored other options, which could mean not going with what he believes to be his strongest side in some of England’s upcoming matches.
The simple fact is that wearing an England shirt is not the time or place for a player to be trying to rediscover his form. Rio needs to do that while playing for United, he needs to go back to his club, knuckle down in training, get himself physically fit, get his head back in the right space and start producing the goods on pitch. Then, when he’s good and ready Capello can give him the call again if he so sees fit. It is at United where Rio should justify his inclusion, not at Wembley.
The question is though, who should Capello call on to replace Ferdinand for the mean time, i.e. who would be the man to fill Rio’s boots at the World Cup if the worst case scenario were to eventuate and he doesn’t rediscover his form? The current options in the squad look to be Matthew Upson and Gary Cahill, as well as Joleon Lescott who dropped out through injury (hence Cahill’s inclusion). Could any of these players fill the gap?
I’m not so sure. I don’t really know enough about Cahill to comment – I’ve heard many good things about him but seen little of him with my own eyes (perhaps Matilda can tell us more?), but I’d suggest he may not have the experience to justify a starting berth at the World Cup. Upson certainly has experience but I don’t see him as a realistic partner for Terry unfortunately.
The thing about the JT/Rio partnership is that they compliment each other very well. Terry is the gung-ho, everything on the line sort of centre back while Rio has a bit more pace and composure about him. He reads the game better and is more comfortable on the ball. Putting Upson next to JT removes those aspects that Rio brings to the partnership because Upson is in many ways just a left-footed John Terry, and that is in no way a criticism, just an observation.
Unfortunately I’m not sure that Lescott would be the answer if fit either. While a fine defender in his own right and one who I saw plenty of during his time at Everton, I don’t think he’s shown that he’s comfortable at international level in the chances he’s been given. What’s more, he’s looked a little out of sorts so far at Manchester City and is naturally taking some time to acclimatize to his new surroundings. Such an adjustment may take considerable time and he may not be back to his best before next Summer.
No, in fact I think that the most natural replacement for Rio Ferdinand that I know of at present would in fact be Lescott’s former defensive partner, Phil Jagielka. While still on the (rather crowded) treatment table at Everton, he’s due for a return sometime in the reasonably near future and if he can get back up to speed, could stake a claim for a spot in Capello’s squad.
He’s certainly more of a Rio type of player than Upson and Lescott, more composed on the ball, with pace to burn and a very intelligent footballing brain. Indeed, the joke amongst Evertonians after mark Hughes payed over the odds for Lescott (who he described as England’s best centre-back) was that he hadn’t even bought Everton’s best centre back, something I think is certainly the case. He’d certainly be my ideal replacement for Rio, should Ferdinand not make it.
I think Capello might share my views too. Not long before his injury Jags was given a couple of opportunities by Capello and the Italian seemed to like what he saw, throwing Jags in at the deep end with a substitute appearance replacing the injured Ferdinand for a crucial last 10 minutes in England’s previous qualifier against the Ukraine at Wembley in April, suggesting that he has plenty of faith in him.
Of course, the best case scenario would of course be to see Rio return to his best form playing for Manchester United and see him playing confidently at the heart of ENgland’s defence next Summer, alongside Ashley Cole. While I am optimistic about England’s chances of going all the way I think we’ll need all of our best players fit and a reasonable amount of luck if we are to pip sides like Spain and Brazil to the ultimate footballing prize.
For England’s sake then, I hope that we can get behind Ashley Cole when he represents England and hopefully see him put his carless mistakes behind him and reproduce his excellent club form for the Three Lions – you can bet he feels wanted by the Chelsea fans. And while I think that Jagielka would prove an accomplished replacement for Ferdinand if need be, his injury this season makes things less than ideal and if fit, Rio and JT are one of the best defensive partnerships in the world – and can cover, to some extent, our relative lack of a world class ‘keeper.
So while Capello may have been going into the match against Ukraine with a fairly solid idea of most of his side and may have been focusing his attentions on certain ‘problem positions’, the match – while not entirely disappointing in itself – may have given him more questions than it did answers. I remain confident that both players will remain firmly in Capello’s plans, but it’ll be an interesting test for the charismatic Italian, and I wait with bated breath to see him leap this latest hurdle on the path to World Cup success. I don’t expect him to stumble yet.
What was your take on England’s game against the Ukraine? Think Rio deserves another chance? What about Ashley Cole? Please leave your thoughts in a comment below…