Two cracking games to kick off the World Cup – so trust England come along to help drag things down a level in the third one.
Perhaps that’s not quite fair, though the second half of the 1-0 win over Paraguay was especially laboured and leaden.
But take the positives – England, indeed eventual winners, rarely start the tournament in top gear, and although this was a heat-sapping toil in the sizzling Frankfurt sunshine, there should be plenty more to come from the likes of Lampard, Gerrard and Beckham.
The goal was a dream start, catching unawares several of us who had only just completed the epic clamber to the heights of the stadium. Paraguayan captain Gamarra certainly took his glancing header goal well – shame for him it was past his own ‘keeper, the unfortunate Villar – unused sub at the 2002 tournament – whose 2006 efforts may well have ended with his injury a few minutes later, forcing him to limp off the field in tears.
England will no doubt take a fair heft of criticism tomorrow, but in the first 20-25 minutes they looked full of fizz and invention, with Beckham and Gerrard offering intelligent movement and incisive, quick passing. Sadly, Michael Owen looked well off full fitness, stumbling over the ball when put clean through, and often over-shadowed by the sharper Peter Crouch – who was unlucky to be penalised quite so often by an over-fussy Mexican referee, but who weighed in with several crucial defensive headers and clearances from Paraguayan corners.
Sadly, the second goal didn’t come – and Gerrard’s dominance began to quickly fade once he took a headbutt to the knee from the prima donna-ish Peredes, allowing Paraguay to start probing back at us – with Nelson Valdez upfront in particular looking dangerous, and certainly trickier than the more-hyped Roque Santa Cruz.
The second half was appallingly scrappy, though, from both sides as England again over-indulged in too-hopeful, long-range potshots at goal – Gerrard and Lampard were the guiltiest, though Lampard did almost atone for his uncharacteristic wasteful passing with two crisper shots which tested the replacement ‘keeper. Beckham was nowhere near as influential after half-time, though throughout the game his corners and crosses seldom beat the first Paraguayan head - which wasn't such a bad thing for the goal, but rather frustrating otherwise...
The replacement of Owen with Stewart Downing in the 55th minute exposed the folly of Sven’s decision to take only four strikers, two unfit and one woefully inexperienced. To accommodate Downing on the left flank, he pushed Joe Cole into the role of support striker – yes, after all the tinkering in pre-World Cup friendlies, here was an attacking tactic Sven hadn’t even attempted. Genius, well worth every penny of £4million each year… Pah.
Downing was disappointing, failing to deliver a single cross – but one wayward shot – but then again, he is very raw himself. The arrival of Hargreaves for Joe Cole may have been meant to shore up England as they saw out the last few minutes, holding on for the win, but if anything the side looked even more ragged, the closer the final whistle came.
Still – while they may have been turgid on the pitch, off the pitch England were triumphant again. What an atmosphere, what an appearance, what a sound – even when baffled slightly by the PA system playing the German version of Three Lions described below.
Fifa’s eccentric allocation policy may have suggested an England turnout of just 14,000, but such stats can be left to the realms of ludicrous fancy. There looked to be at least 14,000 flags alone – always providing a pleasure, scanning the unlikely alliances, the juxtapositions of THFC, Newcastle United, Manchester City , Aston Villa and Liverpool, with humbler lower-division sides such as Stockport County, Huddersfield Town (very proudly educating the Germans with the tagline: “Champions 1924-25-26”), Wycombe Wanderers and Bristol City (Bristol had a few flags out there in fact, a good showing!), down to pretty obscure towns and villages including Treeton, Crook Town, Frodsham, Matlock and the “Oyster Boys On Tour” from Whitstable Town.
My favourite flag of them all, though?
A giant St George’s banner bearing the plangent message: “Claire – don’t give birth yet.”
Now there’s a man with his priorities bang-on.