Unconvincing England limp to within sight of Euro 2012 finals

ON a night when the Metropolitan Line ground to a halt to make getting to Wembley an arduous experience, England’s attempt to reach Euro 2012 remained on track.

To be fair, the prospect of Fabio Capello’s side hitting the buffers against a Wales side ranked 117th in the world was unlikely.

Credit where credit is due, however, as Gary Speed’s men did at least give their hosts a major scare with Robert Earnshaw unlikely to ever live down his appalling miss 13 minutes from time.

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Just how the much-travelled striker managed to blaze over with the goal at his mercy is something even he is unlikely to be able to explain.

It was a lucky escape for England but, nevertheless, the 77,129 crowd – many of whom had arrived after kick-off due to the Metropolitan Line being suspended 90 minutes or so before kick-off – still rose at the final whistle to acclaim the team for making their efforts in reaching the national stadium worthwhile.

Ashley Young’s winner means that a draw in Montenegro next month will be enough to book a place at next year’s finals in Ukraine and Poland for Capello’s side.

That should be well within their ability, even if the manner of the performance against the Welsh was nowhere near as convincing as last Friday’s 3-0 win in Bulgaria.

Capello had suggested during the build-up that changes might be made in an attempt to nullify the threat of Gareth Bale, who the Italian considered to be by far Wales’ biggest threat.

Sure enough, James Milner was brought in to play on the left flank – where his renowned defensive strengths could be utilised best against the Tottenham Hotspur winger.

It was a ploy that largely worked, albeit at the price of a yellow card for the former Leeds United midfielder following a mis-timed 20th minute lunge at Bale.

That apart, though, the current PFA Player of the Year rarely threatened to make the impact he managed in last season’s Champions League with his biggest contribution being a couple of decent crosses during the second half.

In attacking terms, the same could be said about all the Welsh side – at least until Earnshaw’s woeful late miss.

Clearly mindful of what had happened in Cardiff last March when two goals in the opening 10 minutes meant England were able to coast to a routine victory, coach Gary Speed sent his side out with the clear intent of frustrating their hosts.

Packing as many people behind the ball when not in possession meant the Welsh provided a formidable defensive barrier that, for 35 minutes at least, England never looked like breaching.

An indication of just how much the home side were to toil in the opening third or so came when Wayne Rooney urged his team-ates to get forward in support quicker after Wayne Hennessey had simply passed the ball round the Manchester United striker when he tried to close the goalkeeper down.

Rooney’s plea did, at least, elicit a positive response as England breathed life into a game that, up until then, had been a sterile affair peppered with the odd long-range effort from the visitors and a lack of tempo from the home side.

All that changed, however, 10 minutes before the break courtesy of some wonderful skill by Stewart Downing that enabled the former Middlesbrough winger to skip past Joe Ledley. He then looked up before picking out Young, who coolly drilled a low shot past Hennessey.

Buoyed to have made the breakthrough, England went within a whisker of doubling their advantage five minutes later when Young’s whipped-in cross just evaded Rooney before passing just wide of the post.

England continued to set the pace in the second half with it taking Young just 41 seconds to bring a save from Hennessey.

Milner then got to the by-line before pulling back a cross that no white-shirted player could reach before Frank Lampard shot over following neat work by Gareth Barry.

As the game wore on, England, knowing goal difference will not count in deciding who finishes top of Group G, increasingly seemed prepared to settle for a 1-0 victory.

Capello did try to freshen things up by sending on Adam Johnson and Scott Parker but, instead, it was Wales who finished the stronger.

Their big chance came courtesy of Darcy Blake diverting a free-kick into the path of the unmarked Earnshaw.

With goalkeeper Joe Hart out of position, an equaliser seemed a certainty – only for Earnshaw to somehow fire the ball over despite having almost the entire goal to aim at.

It was a major let-off for England but, at least, it meant that the home fans, who headed out into the London night aware that a difficult journey lay ahead thanks to the problems on the tube, knew that their side’s travels should take them to Euro 2012.

England: Hart; Smalling, Cahill, Terry, Cole; Downing (Johnson 79), Lampard (Parker 73), Barry, Milner; Young; Rooney (Carroll 89). Unused substitutes: Jagielka, Stockdale, Lescott, Defoe.

Wales: Hennessey; Gunter, Blake, Williams, Taylor; Bale, Collison (King 85), Crofts, Ramsey, Ledley; Morison (Earnshaw 68). Unused substitutes: Myhill, D Collins, J Collins, Allen, Robson-Kanu.

Referee: R Schorgenhofer (Austria).

Last night’s results: Page 26.