If you read all the pre-match reports, the central theme is invariably David Beckham rather than tactical affairs. England’s obsession with Beckham is likely to continue until the day he retires. Just as well that Fabio Capello handed him his 100th cap and a generous ovation for Beckham’s 60 minutes of service brought the curtain down on weeks of pointless speculation. David Beckham, if a little rusty, was eager to impress but it was not a memorable centenary. Yes, his right foot is still able to deliver 50-yard Hollywood passes across the field and he had a great opportunity to add to his tally of 18 international goals. However, over zealousness got the better of him when he was booked for shirt-pulling on Malouda, an unnecessary foul which exposed his lack of pace and defending ineptness.
I doubt if we will be seeing the last of Beckham. He expressed his desire to get more than 100 caps, saying: “Just to get the cap was what I wanted, to start was a bonus. I am very stubborn and things can change but I want to carry on playing for my country for many years. I proved my fitness and felt sharp and fresh.”From the first whistle, France spelled their intent clearly. Nicolas Anelka tested David James in the 10th minute with a firm header from Frank Ribery’s freekick. Minutes later, Malouda cut inside Wes Brown, supplied a pass to Anelka who shot weakly on the turn, and James was visibly relieved.
England responded with their own brand of attack. Beckham slided in at the far post to meet Ashley Cole’s low cross but was inches away. Gerrard found some space on the edge of the box after Rooney threaded in a pass, unfortunately, he went for the rugby equivalent of a kick when a return pass to Rooney will be a better decision. Gerrard fluffed another chance by heading Wes Brown’s cross over the bar before France pulled ahead. Right-back Francois timed his pass perfectly into the space between England’s centre backs. Anelka, who was lurking, latched on to the ball and was through on goal, the only way James could stop his advance was a late dive to sweep the striker’s legs from under him.
James was spared a red card which is apt since it was only a friendly. A penalty was awarded which Ribery coolly dispatched as James dived in the opposite direction. After the break, Fabio Capello made four substitutions which saw England switch to a conventional 4-4-2 formation spearheaded by Peter Crouch and Michael Owen.However, the changes were ineffective and France strengthened their dominance instead. RibÃ©ry set Anelka on the loose and he turned, with the England captain, Rio Ferdinand in tow, before shooting high. Malouda should have added his name to the score sheet when his left-foot drive grazed the foot of the post with James well beaten.
Ribery nearly doubled his personal tally with quarter of an hour left but dragged his shot wide after a great assist from Anelka on the edge of the area. In the last minute, substitute Djibril Cisse fired into the side netting to cap a frustrating night for Les Blues. But with England failing to create a single clear chance in the second half, any additional cushion was unnecessary.In terms of performance, a tame England had little to cheer as France were firmly in control. The ease of their 1-0 win was a stark reminder to the immense tasks faced by Fabio Capello in elevating his charges to a world-class standard. Capello said: “I am actually quite happy and have seen some improvements. We have played against a top level country and I think we did well. The way we played and the fact we didn’t let them play much was impressive.
”The improvements, if any, are barely visible and not good enough. While Ribery’s first-half penalty separated both sides, it was Nicolas Anelka who provided the sparks for France. The crowd chanted “Ole” whenever he touched the ball and teased England with a series of neat dragbacks and stepovers. A welcome change as he was the subject of jeers instead of cheers not so long ago.It has come full circle for Le Sulk. Nine years after tormenting England’s defense with both goals in France 2-0 win at Wembley, he shone brilliantly again. Anelka is quick, can make deep runs, hold the ball up well and most importantly, is an intelligent footballer.
I believe he is a sure candidate to be included in France’s Euro 08 campaign since Thierry Henry is experiencing a slump in form. Henry is not assured of a starting spot for Barcelona and an extended spell in the treatment room has blunted his abilities.France coach Raymond Domenech declared himself satisfied with the build-up to Euro 2008. Though the second half saw France losing the ball and making stray passes, England were never in a position to take advantage. If they had put more effort into finishing off the chances, this could be an embarrassing night for Capello. Defense wise, there are lots of holes for Capello to plug. The rearguard was constantly a step slower in the face of a rampaging Anelka and the biggest culprit was the ever-reliable John Terry who sprung a faulty offside trap which only embarrassed himself. Anelka easily eluded Terry and James had little choice but to commit the foul.
For the front line, I will not throw out the strategy of employing Steven Gerrard in an advanced position (close to Wayne Rooney) yet, even though this match showed that it was not effective in terms of penetration.It requires some fine-tuning and Rooney has to be the person who ultimately takes the shots while Gerrard’s role should be more of a facilitator, working out the through passes and one-twos, instead of shooting on sight. It was a good test though as Claude Makelele, a man adept in the holding role, gave Capello an inking of what has to be done in this aspect.David Bentley is an able candidate on the right, if Beckham decides to hang up his boots or if Capello decides to impose his exile. The fact that Capello fielded David James, Wes Brown and Stewart Downing showed that he is not immune to the same problem faced by Sven-Goran Eriksson: a depressing shortage of talents, especially in defense.
For those who grumble about Capello’s mistakes, look at it this way, a friendly serves the purpose of experimenting and a victory is hollow if nothing can be gleaned or the opponent is not in the mood to put up a good fight.I will rather Fabio Capello lose all his friendlies while adjusting his strategies all the time and finally put up a strong team for the World Cup qualifiers. I am sure he will be reviewing the video of this match repeatedly and exploring options. So be patient, embarking on a sling campaign will only demoralize the entire team.