Stevie G celebrates his goal against the United States. Wigglesworth/AP
It's interesting being an England fan. The team is good - there are no doubts there, but they're not as good as they're portrayed in the media (on either side of the Atlantic), and there's a certain tendency towards hilarious, embarrassing failure which does rather put the dampers on any real belief that they'll do well in battle. Unless, of course, you're one of the legions of delusional idiots who think that good ol' English lads are inherently better than Johnny Foreigner and that the team's rightful destiny is to win every single game from now until the rest of eternity, in which case I'm ashamed to share a passport with you. The game itself was a simple case of England being England, with all of the horror and joy that entails. Apologies for the lack of coherence in the following; it happens when you find yourself in a bar at 4:15AM and don't leave until 2.The bright start was probably caused by Jame Milner, controversially starting at the left midfield position, sniffing Ashley Cole's bottom for luck in the tunnel. An interesting version of God Save the Queen blared out as Rustenburg, the incessant droning of the melody and lyrics complemented by the excessive droning of vuvuzelas from the stands. A few claps by the gathering at a packed (mostly by US jerseys) Azzuri, and we were off.
England started brightly, piling on the pressure right from the beginning. It paid dividends quickly as they battered their way through the heart of the American defence four minutes in. Rooney laid in a poor ball to Emile Heskey, who spotted Gerrard's run into the box, overpowered Jay DeMerit with ease, and released the captain into space. Gerrard did not miss, sliding a cool finish past Tim Howard's left and into a gaping net. Cue groans from the American fans and some extremely loud cheers from yours truly and the few England fans who had made their way in.
The foot was taken off the pedal immediately following the opener, however, and the US midfield started dominating possession, finding particular joy down their right flank where James Milner huffed and puffed and generally looked about as fit as Chmalphabet Blanco. Milner's only contributions of note were scything down right back Steve Cherundolo twice, earning a booking for his troubles and being replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips at the half hour mark. Milner's inclusion over Joe Cole was a gamble on coach Fabio Capello's part, and it didn't go according to plan. Make no mistake, a fully fit Milner is an important player for England, but at partial fitness he was a weak link that the States were exploiting mercilessly.
Despite the possession, the US were reduced by a staunch defence to lofting speculative long balls into the box and taking potshots at Robert Green from distance, doubtless hoping that the much-maligned new ball would cause the England keeper difficulty. England appeared to to be relatively happy to soak up pressure and spring counter-attacks, and looked particularly dangerous down the right side, where Glen Johnson and Aaron Lennon routinely combined to devastating effect. It was an excursion from Lennon which led to the next major happening. The Tottenham winger skinned veteran defender Carlos Bocanegra drove along the byline, and cut the ball back across the face of the goal. Tim Howard came out to meet the tempting pass, and Heskey came in to meet the goalkeeper's ribs. Apart from Wayne Rooney, who looks like he'd bite your nose off at the slightest of provocations (he's just hungry, bless his little ape heart), Heskey is the player I'd least want to be hit by in the entire group, and I gather that Tim Howard agrees, as he was on the group wheezing for a good few minutes before staggering to his feet and getting on with it.
A note on Wayne Rooney: It may have come to your attention that FIFA referrees were given a sheet of English swear words earlier this week, supposedly to help guard against abuse by certain unruly parties. However, I think it's entirely possible that the list was simply 'All the sentences that Wayne Rooney knows listed on one page', and probably included the phrase 'me want banana'.
It only took a few more minutes for an impact at the other end. Dempsey was in no-man's land, toying aimlessly with the ball while Gerrard danced about in front of him. Eventually a daisy-skimming snapshot was let loose, bouncing twice before meeting Green's gloves. Unfortunately for England, Green was set up a least a foot left of where he should have been, and the ball squirmed out of his grasp, he fell over while attempting to pursue, and a nation looked on in horror as the net rippled. It was a stupid, stupid goal to concede, and England were desperately unlucky to find themselves back on level terms. While possession was essentially even throughout the first half, England displayed a cutting edge that the US team simply did not possess. The game went into the break tied at one apiece, although Ledley King still found the time to injure himself between the US goal and the half time whistle.
I made great use of the half-time break, rewriting the national anthem to something more topical (no offence to HRH Queen Elizabeth II intended. <3 Queenie).
God kill that retard Green,
Cut out his fucking spleen,
God kill Rob Green.
Make sure he’s terrified,
Writhing and petrified,
There’ll be no place to hide,
God killllll Rob Green!
The meter doesn't quite work, but hey, neither does Green as goalie, apparently.
With antiquated Liverpool man Jamie Carragher replacing King in the back line, the States should have been bouyed coming out after the break. Instead, they were pinned back almost immediately as England were rampant. Again and again, the American left flank was collapsed, but England simply couldn't make the most of the frequent chances. Emile Heskey, who had been having an extremely good game by his not-altogether-lofty standards, was guilty of a woeful miss when sent clean through by Lennon in the 52nd minute, electing to shoot the ball straight at Howard rather than chip it over the advancing keeper or square the ball to a striker capable of finishing. I think I'm one of about four people who actually appreciates what Heskey does for his teams, but my goodness that shot was a calamity.
With the Heskey miss, the most telling period of English pressure was over, and the US were once more back in the game. Carragher, who is slower than you and I tied together, was particularly exposed, and it took a wonderful save from Rob Green plus the efforts of the post to keep Jozy Altidore from exploiting his lack of pace in the middle stages of the half. It was the one and only good scoring chance for the Americans in the whole game, and they came extraordinarily close to making it count. England were still generating chance after chance, and the Wayne Rooney-Frank Lampard duo, largely anonymous in a dismal first half, clicked into life late, launching venomous long range shots that threatened to break the deadlock. Mindful of the lack of aerial ability in his attack, Capello elected to use the last of his substitutions to withdraw Heskey and insert the hilariously proportioned Peter Crouch. The move backfired, as England were reduced to launching hopeful long balls in Crouch's general direction, whereupon he proceeded to do absolutely nothing. Neither team looked particularly threatening as the match petered out uneventfully, and the Americans went into wild celebration at the final whistle, celebrating like they'd won a knock-out game. It was annoying.
The draw wasn't really the deserved result; England were clearly superior to the opposition on both sides of the ball (though it must be said, the US midfield is extremely fluid) and it took a colossal error from Green to give the Americans a share of the spoils. However assuming the group is topped, the States are the strongest side England are likely to face until the semi-finals, where they will undoubtedly lose to a team which is actually good. It was a promising performance against a good opponent, and considering the rather large worry that England would somehow contrive to lose the game, I'm pretty relieved by the outcome, especially considering that Rooney was under the weather and Gareth Barry was missing entirely. The US played adequately, but they seems vulnerable at the back and punchless up front. One wonders how they'll amass enough goals against Algeria and Slovenia to catch England on goal differential, should it come to that.
PS: Does anyone know Rob Green's address? Does he have any pets?
PPS: No seriously that was pretty annoying.