When I realised this weekend would leave me without my Fulham fix, your correspondent did briefly consider going to watch England play Slovenia in this friendly a few weeks ago, but prior commitments meant this was destined to be a day watching the football in front of the telly. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The prices were a little bit steep to watch two teams trying to avoid getting injured: England with Wednesday’s visit of Croatia in mind and the Slovenians, who still have plenty to say about the outcome of Northern Ireland’s group, because they take on Poland in the week.
While these friendlies are often derided as meaningless, every game throws up an interesting surprise or two. To the unintiated, today’s might have been just how impressive Slovenia were. They have had an excellent qualifying campaign and, even if they don’t reach South Africa for next summer’s World Cup, they have reached two major tournaments in their brief eighteen years as an independent nations and have a side that plays pretty and – much more crucially – effective football. The goalkeeper Samir Handonovic is the sort of steady figure between the posts that Fabio Capello must crave (even more so after a couple of abberations by Robert Green could have put England a couple of goals down). Don’t be fooled by the continent habit of fisting the ball away rather than catching it – he’s a very good goalkeeper.
If the Slovenians had similar quality higher up the pitch they might have embarassed England. Their first-half approach play deserved a goal and they once again exploited the frailities in Glenn Johnson’s defending that were shown up by Arjen Robben in Amsterdam last month. Robert Koren, another excellent midfielder at West Brom, was prompting most of what the Slovenians did with clever passes from a deep-lying central midfield position and England looked badly off the pace.
That is until a Swede called Eriksson intervened. No, not that one – although, as I’ve argued here before, I think he was vastly underrated as England coach. The referee interrupted a clear foul on the centre back by Wayne Rooney, which forced Bostjan Cesar off injured, as a penalty to England and Frank Lampard thumped Capello’s side into a lead they certainly didn’t merit. The goal perked England up a bit, but they still looked rather listless. Shaun Wright-Phillips, somewhat bafflingly given a start ahead of Aaron Lennon down the right, was particularly poor.
Jermain Defoe did what he does best in the second half. Full of direct running and confidence he struck a sweet shot into the far corner when they appeared to be little danger to the Slovenian goal. The little forward has improved so much in the last few months as his deadly cameo in Holland showed – and his form for Tottenham might force him into Capello’s first team plans sooner rather than later. It remains to be seen how he might work as a partnership with Wayne Rooney, who looks a lot happier with Emile Heskey as a target man up front, but Defoe’s been irresistable in front of goal this season.
Rooney himself looked a little off-colour in front of goal this afternoon. He clearly thrives in the more central role that both Capello and Sir Alex Ferguson have afforded him this season but he’s not the deadly poacher that Lineker or, dare I say it, Michael Owen were. He hit the post when he was barely a yard out in the first half and then missed an absolute sitter in the second half when Lennon had laid a glorious chance on a plate with a storming run.
There was just enough time left for Slovenia to grab a deserved goal and send Wes Brown – and any other potential England right backs into frenzied training before the World Cup. Johnson was ridiculously culpable again as Necj Pecnik, who might have scored himself seconds after coming on, made the full back look a complete fool before squaring the ball for Zlatan Ljubijankic to remind everyone that Joleon Lescott just isn’t a £24m defender. The new Manchester City defender allowed his man to steal in front of him to head an incredibly soft goal that will have infuriated the perfectionist Capello. Sterner tests will come but you got the feeling that if this was a competitve fixture rather than the preamble prior to Croatia there would be some hefty criticism about to fly England’s way.
ENGLAND (4-2-3-1): Green; Johnson, Terry, Upson (Lescott 65), A Cole; Lampard (Carrick 45), Barry; Wright-Phillips (Lennon 45), Rooney (C Cole 80), Gerrard (Milner 45); Heskey (Defoe 45). Subs (not used): Foster, Brown, Bridge, Beckham, Cahill, A Young, Robinson, Crouch.
GOALS: Lampard (pen 31), Defoe (63).
SLOVENIA (4-4-2): Handanovic; Brecko, Suler, Cesar (Mavric 35), Jokic; Radosavljevic (Krhin 77), Koren, Kirm (Stevanovic 77), Birsa (Komac 65); Dedic (Pecnik 71), Novakovic (Ljubijankic 55). Subs (not used): Seliga, Zlogar, Ilic, Dzinic.
GOAL: Ljunijankic (85).
REFEREE: Jonas Eriksson (Sweden)