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Goals scored one, goals conceded nil, result happiness. Goals scored nil, goals conceded one, result misery. The principle is simple, but England appear to have as little idea as Mr Micawber as to how to put it into effect.
The defence cannot defend, the midfield cannot pass, and half the forwards are struggling to walk, and yet blithe optimism reigns – something will turn up. It is as though this generation of players has been told for so long that they are the chosen ones, they have come to believe that ending 40 years without an English success at a major tournament is a matter of inevitability.
Both David Beckham and John Terry spoke on Friday of waiting for something to “click”, but the danger is, even if England defeat Ecuador in the second round tomorrow, that it never will.
“Hopefully people are going to step up to the plate and raise our game,” Terry said. The Chelsea captain acknowledged that England’s defending of dead-balls in the second half of the final group game against Sweden was shambolic.
So why did it go wrong? “I’m not too sure,” he said. “Before the game everything is on the ball. We all know who we’re marking, and obviously at set-plays we’ve got responsibilities individually. Defensively we were quite bad but we’re working on that. I believe it’s one of our strong points – big men who can deal with crosses and balls, but we just had one of them days.”
England have had a lot of “them days” recently, but Terry’s faith remains undiminished. Frank Lampard’s shooting is awry: “If one [goal] comes, there’ll be two or three to follow.” England have been unimaginative: “Hopefully that’s the group stage and the not-so-good performances out of the way and we can play better.”
Beckham is just as guilty. When it was put to him that England regularly underperform in the second half, he readily agreed. The solution? “I don’t know to be honest. Sometimes it can happen and it has happened recently.”
The mixture of sophistry and cluelessness is worrying, for Ecuador will not be easy opponents. Their 3-0 defeat to Germany in their final group game may have an effect in terms of checking momentum, but given that coach Luis Fernando Suárez opted to rest three of his best four players, it would be dangerous to read too much into that result.
In their first two matches, Ecuador were admirably robust, and the right-winger Luis Antonio Valencia looks a player of real quality.
Furthermore, with Gary Neville out with a calf injury, and Rio Ferdinand struggling with a groin problem, a reshuffle is probable on Sunday, especially given Sol Campbell’s less than secure display against Sweden. With Eriksson opting for a 4-5-1 formation, Michael Carrick is likely to be given the holding role in midfield, with Owen Hargreaves switching to right-back and Jamie Carragher moving into the middle alongside John Terry. Steven Gerrard should return to the centre, with Wayne Rooney operating as a lone forward.