new era, a new regime and a fresh start, that was where most of the
pre-match talk was focussed. New manager, Sam Allardyce, did not change
too much in way of personnel for his first game in charge, and for a
long spell it looked as though not much else had changed either. Almost
certainly, the so called experts will tend to focus on the negatives
after this performance, and yes there were plenty of things for the
manager to improve on, but overall it was a very satisfying win, and a
lesson for all in not giving up.
started brightly and looked to take the game to their hosts. They
forced Slovakia back on their heels and continued on the front foot for
most of the first-half. Wayne Rooney was given a free role and he was
playing quite deep, picking the ball up from the back players and trying
to find a decisive forward pass. There were little moments of danger
for the Slovakian defence, with Adam Lallana and Danny Rose working a
good move down the left before over-hitting a cross, and then Lallana
made a fine interception before a curious cross seemed to freeze in
mid-air and Raheem Sterling almost beat the flapping goalkeeper to the
ball. On 21 minutes Kyle Walker's good cross was met at the near post
by clubmate Harry Kane, well actually it wasn't because Kane missed the
ball and the defence cleared. That was the clearest chance to date
though and England's patient build up was gradually creating chances.
Jordan Henderson almost released Sterling, but the winger's control let
him down at the vital moment.
Martin Skrtel was booked for a foul on Kane in the 24th minute and
Rooney's free-kick was cleared for a corner. After a scrappy midpoint
of the half Slovakia fashioned what proved to be their only chance of
the game. A mistake by Rose, his only one of the night, allowed Michal
Duris to fire in a low, hard cross and Dusan Svento came within a
whisker of touching the ball home. That turned out to be Joe Hart's
most anxious moment as England switched play straight down to the other
end and good play by Lallana and Kane left Sterling with a chance, but
the winger's shot just cleared the wrong side of the far post.
By this time the game was opening up a little. Kane's shot was
deflected for yet another corner and a burst by Rose so nearly saw him
on the end of a fine pass from Rooney. Skrtel was very lucky not to
earn a second yellow card for another foul on Kane and the half ended
with England dominating possession, totally on top, but lacking the
final thrust in attack. It was all very reminiscent of the game in the
European Championships when these sides shared a goalless draw.
The second half was even more one-way traffic as England continued to
dominate and probe for an opening. Again the half started brightly for
England and they did manage to get the ball into the net, although the
whistle had already gone for a foul by John Stones. England had to
guard against a swift break from Slovakia but both Stones and Gary
Cahill held the middle well and their full-backs also looked solid in
defence with Walker and Rose very quick in recovery if they were
beaten. If there was to be any criticism then it was because of the
rather pedestrian build up, which gave Slovakia time to file back into
their defensive set-up. On 49 minutes Walker saw a centre blocked but
the ball ran for Henderson who fired a shot just over. The near misses
increased, although it must be said that there were no really clearcut
chances. Skrtel transgressed against Kane once more, without further
punishment, and the former Liverpool man was walking a very thin line
with the referee. Allardyce then brought on Deli Alli and Slovakia also
made a change.
In the 57th minute the referee finally lost his patience with Skrtel,
who not only fouled Kane again, but this time stood on his ankle for
good measure. That was definitely worthy of a straight red and the home
captain was sent off. For a spell the ten men raised their game and
Rose made one fine headed clearance from a breakaway. At the other end,
Lallana, always in the thick of things, messed up a cross and also shot
over as England tried to press home their numerical advantage.
Alli was already making a difference, and he so nearly touched home a
Rooney free-kick, and he again went close immediately afterwards.
Croatia were now desperately hanging on to what they hoped would be a
hard-won point. Tackles and blocks had an air of desperation, but to
their credit they kept battling to frustrate England. Sterling went off
to be replaced by Theo Walcott and on 75 minutes Lallana came oh so
close to winning it. An excellent move opened up the defence for once
and Lallana's shot crashed against the inside of the near post and
bounced away. Walcott tried a follow-up, but miscued, and then Lallana
saw another shot well saved by Matus Kozacik. It was a real flurry of
chances, and England were creating more and more, although time was fast
running out for them.
off and Daniel Sturridge was sent on with ten minutes to go and it was
all England at this stage. Walcott's centre almost found Sturridge,
Lallana hit a fine shot just wide after superb play by Stones, and
Walcott was offside as he tried to convert a lovely pass from Rooney.
With a minute to go Sturridge curled a shot in, but that was easily
saved, and then Walcott found the net, before being disappointed to see
a linesman's flag up again.
had to hand it to Slovakia who defended for all they were worth, and
just as you thought they would get an unlikely point England broke the
deadlock. It was actually the fifth minute of added time when Rose once
again battled his way down the left. He had a little luck in stumbling
through a couple of tackles, but the Tottenham man kept going and
eventually pulled the ball back to Lallana, who kept his cool admirably
to side-step the lunging defenders to fire in a left-foot shot through
the goalkeeper's legs and into the net.
had finally broken his England goalscoring duck, and what a time to do
it, his dance of joy in front of the England fans was fully justified!
At the other end of the spectrum though, the home defenders collapsed on
to the ground in sheer exhaustion and disappointment. As soon as
Slovakia kicked off again the final whistle blew, it was that close!
credit to England for keeping going, and for not giving up. The team
thoroughly deserved their win, and although the critics and the
doom-mongers will no doubt find plenty to moan about, the fact that this
win in a difficult place was achieved, should give everyone the
encouragement for the rest of the games coming up. There were some good
performances too, most notably from Rose, Stones, Cahill, Rooney,
Lallana and Alli, when he came on, so there was plenty to enthuse over.