Lions roar at last
England's World Cup is up and running after two false starts. Chris Harvey saw them get their mojo back.
Last Updated: 28/06/10 9:29am
Thank goodness! England's World Cup has finally kicked off with Fabio Capello's men clicking into gear at the third time of asking.
The 1-0 victory over Slovenia in Port Elizabeth contained more drive, belief and inspired football than in the turgid total of 180 minutes against USA and Algeria.
A 22nd-minute goal from Jermain Defoe was the statistic which mattered, but this match was about more than goals - it was about England proving the doubters wrong.
Fabio Capello had called on England to play with more freedom and tempo but, most of all, to play with spirit. Where it has been until now is a mystery which might well be solved when we learn the inside stories of what has been going on at their training camp.
But it returned in bucketloads in Port Elizabeth. Whether the catalyst was John Terry's press conference, the players' clear-the-air meeting or a concerted determination within the squad not to go home as abject failures is debatable.
Yes, there were nervy moments as they invited Slovenia to press forward in the latter stages, but for the first time in South Africa they looked like a team with a collective will. And with the draw opening up they could now go far in this tournament.
"We're not going home," sang the England fans and the supporters in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium were magnificent, Wayne Rooney's words last Friday forgotten as they roared on the Three Lions.
They blew their vuvuzelas, banged their drums, screamed their support and if there was the odd boo at the mention of Terry's name on the stadium tannoy at the start then it did not detract from the feeling they were all in this together.
They played their part and the players responded. At first they were a little nervous, giving away possession too cheaply but once they had settled and found a rhythm which had been so elusive in their earlier matches then they began to dominate as they should against opponents who are 25 in the world rankings for a reason.
James Milner began to put in the sort of crosses he does so regularly for Aston Villa, Frank Lampard strutted around like he does for Chelsea, Terry was back to his domineering best and Rooney, while still not at his sharpest, at least had shed the frustration of recent weeks.
Then there was Defoe. The little Tottenham striker is not going to run the channels like Emile Heskey but what he does is score goals and he was on the mark after 22 minutes, stealing in front of his marker in the six-yard box to get on the end of a Milner cross to plant his shot past Samir Handanovic.
You could sense the release of tension. A snap returned to England's play; at one point Rooney even smiled, even if it was replaced later by a glower when he was substituted for Joe Cole after 71 minutes.
Overall, however, the demeanour was much improved, the understanding much better. Steven Gerrard and Rooney combined in a series of one-twos. Gerrard sprayed long passes, short passes and this time they actually found men wearing the red shirts.
Rooney hit the foot of a post although replays showed Handanovic had in fact made a superb save. In short, England were in complete control.
Where can England go from here? Well, World Cups have a habit of being dominated in the latter stages by teams who have grown as the tournament progresses. It is no good peaking too early; England have certainly not fallen into that trap.
But there will be a healthy respect for them after this display. A realisation that, after all, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Capello, who significantly embraced Terry first of all when the final whistle blew, received the tempo he demanded. He witnessed the fight. At last he saw the spirit. And his team booked their place in the last 16 where they now await the winners of Group D.