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October 12, 2006 3:00 am
Shambolic, chaotic and in the end plain embarrassing. As Gary Neville's back-pass rolled over Paul Robinson's foot to complete a 2-0 win for Croatia on Wednesday night, it simply summed up England's disarray, writes Jonathan Wilson at the Maksimir Stadium.
Given the opposition, this was perhaps not quite so humiliating as the loss to Northern Ireland a year ago, but it did recall that performance in resulting from bizarre tactical tinkering. So outlandish was manager Steve McClaren's selection of a 3-5-2 formation that Croatia's assistant manager Aljosa Asanovic had said he could not believe he would deploy it. Yet McClaren insisted it was not "a gamble". It wasn't - it was practically a concession.
"We're not getting the ball forward quickly enough," he said, "and we're not getting the ball into the right areas."
Yet England were again ponderous, and far from finding the right areas, the ball repeatedly found its way to the feet of their opponents. Whatever the shape, McClaren has the right to expect his defenders to be able to execute simple passes. As primarily a stopper, not too much can be expected from captain John Terry in this regard at the centre of a back three. But, not for the first time, it occurred that for a player renowned for being comfortable in possession, Rio Ferdinand is remarkably uncomfortable in possession. His first-half booking was a case in point, as he turned languidly into trouble, lost possession to the lively Niko Kranjcar and was forced to haul him down.
Yet the deficiencies were surely in part a result of the pervading lack of confidence, and the lack of familiarity with the system. Milan Rapaic enjoyed far too much space behind Ashley Cole and twice before half-time his crosses found Kranjcar, who too often was allowed to drift in untended from the right. Robinson did superbly to save the first effort low to his left, but England were fortunate the second deflected wide off Ferdinand.
Robinson, highlighted as England's weak link by Croatia, had made good saves to keep out another Kranjcar effort and Mladen Petric's header, but the claim was borne out in the end. Just after the hour, Niko Kovac sent in a deep cross from the left, Robinson careered too quickly across his goal and was left leaden-footed as Eduardo da Silva looped a header back over him.
That was bad enough, but it soon got worse. There could hardly have been less pace on Neville's back-pass eight minutes later, but, as Robinson went to clear, the ball hit a divot and bobbed over his foot and into the net. Oh, brave new world.
Also in Group E, Macedonia followed Saturday's unexpected 0-0 draw against England with an emphatic 3-0 away victory over Andorra. Goran Pandev, Nikolce Noveski and Ilco Naumoski all scored within the first 31 minutes to put the game beyond doubt. In the group's other match, Russia gained a first win, beating Estonia 2-0 in St Petersburg.
Scotland also suffered a 2-0 defeat, losing to Ukraine in Kiev as the euphoria after Saturday's victory over France evaporated. Chelsea forward Andriy Shevchenko converted from the penalty spot late on, after Olexander Kucher had put the home side ahead.
In a further blow for the Scots, a red card for Steven Pressley rules him out of the next match against Georgia, together with James McFadden and Darren Fletcher who both picked up their second bookings of the campaign.
*FOOTBALL The German Football Association will investigate accusations by of racial abuse against England Under-21 players by their German opponents during Tuesday's European Championships qualifier. England defeated Germany to reach the finals in the Netherlands next year, but their 2-0 win in the second leg at Leverkusen was overshadowed by accusations from Micah Richards and Anton Ferdinand that both were called ''monkeys" by opponents.
Uefa, Europe's governing body of football, said if sufficient evidence were gathered, the matter would be presented to its control and disciplinary body.
England midfielder Joe Cole is ready to return for champions Chelsea after a pre-season injury. Cole suffered a knee injury in a game in the US in August and has since played a few minutes for the first team as a late substitute in last month's Champions League win over Werder Bremen. He came through a reserves friendly at Chelsea's Cobham training ground on Tuesday and believes he is ready for a first-team comeback, according to the club's website. Cole could make his return at Reading on Saturday or at Stamford Bridge against Barcelona in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Reading published plans for an expanded 38,000-capacity Madejski Stadium. The aim is to add seating on three sides of the ground - behind each goal and the East Stand.
*HORSERACING Deep Impact, Japan's leading racehorse, is to be retired after coming third in this month's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. The five-year-old colt, widely considered one of the best horses in Japanese history, will be retired to stud, according to the Japan Racing Association.
"Deep Impact's owner Masato Kaneko said through trainer Yasuo Ikee that he has taken the decision to retire the horse this year," the JRA said.
The Japanese Triple Crown winner had won 10 of 11 starts on home soil and had been heavily tipped to become the first non-European horse to win the Arc.
Jockey Kieren Fallon will be allowed to ride in the Melbourne Cup next month after he was granted a local licence by Racing Victoria. Fallon, who has been banned from riding in Britain since July while he awaits fraud charges, was granted a licence yesterday to take part in Australia's Spring Carnival racing programme. He will ride the Irish stayer Yeats, winner of the Gold Cup events at Ascot and Goodwood, in the two-mile showpiece event of the Carnival at Flemington Park on November 7.
*ATHLETICS Britain's 400m Commonwealth champion Christine Ohuruogu has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against the one-year ban imposed by UK Athletics for missing three out-of-competition doping tests. Ohuruogu, 22, was banned last month by an independent disciplinary committee which concluded she had committed a doping violation.
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