Few picked England to finish second in Group C, let alone miss the knockout stage, but as we enter the final match of group play, England starts the day in third place - on the outside looking in at advancing. Worse, they are a team in disarray, with a John Terry-led coup being squashed earlier this week, the effects of the insurrection still unclear. Beyond those political concerns, England has scored only once in 180 minutes f and are set to play one of the draw’s best defensive teams.
That team, Slovenia, is coming off a second half collapse against the United States that may cost them a spot in the second round. Had they held on, Slovenia would have the group clinched. As is, the Slovenes may need a result against England to make the final sixteen.
England, Going Forward: The Three Lions have gone almost two full matches without scoring a goal, and while a disproportionate amount of blame has been placed on Wayne Rooney, the criticism has been deserved.
The Manchester United starlet is central to a team that’s built around his talents. Emile Heskey doesn’t start for Enland unless Fabio Capello’s trying to get the most out of Rooney. Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard have been deployed so that they are not infringing on Rooney’s preferred space. The entire England set-up is predicated upon Wayne Rooney performing, so when he doesn’t, it’s a legitimate cause for concern (read: panic).
And this isn't a matter of Rooney underperforming in a "Messi doesn't have a goal" way. Rooney hasn't come close to a goal. He hasn't come close to generating goals. His first touch has been terrible. He has lacked energy. He seems more removed from the play than he's ever been. He may be tired, may be unhealthy - who knows?
Perhaps not surprising, given how the team is set-up: England has been terrible because Wayne Rooney has been terrible.
The question Capello has to address is whether it’s time for a Plan B. That Plan B would presumably replace Heskey with Peter Crouch, bring Steven Gerrard in from left wing and place Frank Lampard in a more advanced role. That would again beg the Lampard-Gerrard question, but with only two points through two matches, England has no perfect solutions.
Such is the level of discontent within their support that players like Joe Cole and Michael Carrick - players who have not played well for six months - are being called upon by fans. If Capello doesn’t have better ideas, those are refrains that will live-on long past today’s Slovenia match.
Slovenia, Going Forward: The Slovenes are through with a draw and have a team set-up to get one. Allowing only four goals in qualifying, they showed they’re able to lock the back door. But the Slovenes also scored 18 goals in that timespan, showing an ability to take advantage of their opponents' mistakes.
When you have a back line that features John Terry, Matthew Upson, Glen Johnson and no true play-destroying midfielder, Slovenia’s approach is cause for alarm, particularly if the match gets to a point where England, needing a win, must throw players into attack to chase a goal. Isolating their slow defenders against a counterattacking team is a recipe for zero, not three, points.
Slovenia will be best served by waiting out this match, being patient until England has to start throwing more resources into attack. Then, they counter (like Kirk versus Kahn). Qualifying with a tie, the Slovenes can afford to be conservative, and with one eye on Pretoria, they may see a match play out where they could lose to England and still make the final sixteen. Matzaj Kek can afford to be conservative, at the start.
How The Match Turns: If Slovenia can keep England off the scoresheet early, it will be telling when Fabio Capello starts to make substitutions. Cole and Jermain Defoe are the England coach’s probable impact subs. How early he goes to them will show how confident he is in his starting XI.