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Saturday, June 26, 2010

PREMIER REPORT

Best to avoid penalty shootout against Germany


LONDON — During the first week of the World Cup finals a German reporter asked Wayne Rooney whether he was worried by the possibility of meeting his country in the second round.

Christopher Davies

Rooney looked the journalist straight in the eyes and replied: "No. I would prefer to play Germany."

Why?

"Because it would be nice to beat them."

Rooney and England have their chance Sunday when the biggest of all European rivalries at the World Cup goes head-to-head in Bloemfontein, though "nice" is rather understating the pleasure England, the team and country, would feel if Fabio Capello's side won.

Since beating the Germans in the 1966 World Cup final they have knocked England out of the quarterfinals in 1970 and ended English hopes at the 1990 World Cup and Euro '96 in penalty shootouts.

There was a sense of inevitability that the old foes would cross swords again and the reward, if that is the right word, for England if it is victorious is a likely quarterfinal clash with Argentina . . . Diego Maradona, the Hand of God, Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez, et al.

First things first, and while there can rarely have been such relief at finishing runners-up in a group, it could and should have been avoided.

A date with Ghana rather than Germany awaited had England not been so profligate in defeating Slovenia only 1-0. Having said that, had England defeated Russia 1-0 everyone would be happy and Slovenia beat the Russians over a two-leg playoff, so maybe the smallest country at the finals is not the cannon fodder most in England perceived.

But after the soulless and goalless display against Algeria, England was concerned only with beating Slovenia and qualifying for the knockout stage. Failure would have meant a scar for life for the players involved and England played better than the scoreline suggests, though improving on the Algeria debacle would not have been difficult.

Finishing second to a spirited United States was acceptable in the wake of a growing concern about joining France on an early flight home, though Ghana and then, Uruguay or South Korea would have been a better option than Germany and Argentina. One goal . . . one more goal . . .

The glass half-full view is that England qualified for the next round unbeaten, has kept two clean sheets and it is said the sign of a good team is not to lose when you play poorly.

It's hardly been a vintage World Cup for England so far, but they are still there and there is genuine optimism the team has more to offer.

A slow burner of a World Cup will undoubtedly come to life in Bloemfontein on Sunday when the fear of failure and the joy of victory will make for the mother of all rivalries in a match to remember, whatever the outcome.

England versus Germany doesn't do dull.

Both teams have reasons to be both confident and wary. England showed more passion, pace and precision against Slovenia and Capello's team changes were vindicated.

Jermain Defoe, replacing the pedestrian Emile Heskey, scored the winner from a superb cross by James Milner, who came in for Aaron Lennon.

Don Fabio continued with his favored 4-4-2 formation, which seemed to put him in a minority of one. Just about everybody else in the country wants England to play 4-3-3 with Wayne Rooney a lone striker supplemented by two wide players, but the Italian has made stubbornness an art form.

Was Capello's judgment spot on or did he get lucky?

Because England won it does not mean 4-4-2 is the way forward; the formation has its limitations and one hopes Capello is flexible enough to realize this though breath should not be held.

This may not be a classic Germany side, and there are defensive weaknesses, but we know from experience that even their bad teams are good.

Right-back and captain Philip Lahm seems incapable of an ordinary display, Bastian Schweinsteiger is the defensive midfield rock who allows the two new stars of German football, Mezut Ozil and Thomas Muller, to show their considerable attacking skills.

Despite indifferent form for their clubs last season, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski still do the business in a Germany shirt.

For England, Glen Johnson, John Terry and Ashley Cole have been dominant at the back, Steven Gerrard, despite being played on the left instead of in the center of midfield, has impressed, and while Milner and Gareth Barry lack pace they showed against Slovenia they have much to offer.

A worry is Wayne Rooney who desperately needs a goal to restore his confidence. He has lost his clinical touch in front of goal and doubts remain about his fitness, but he did enough against Slovenia to suggest Germany will see a different Rooney.

My heart will always say England, but my head says Germany and I so hope I am wrong.

* * * * *

THERE SEEMS to be a belief within the England camp that practicing penalties is academic because you cannot replicate the sudden death atmosphere in the stadium on the training field.

In that case, why bother to train at all?

Of course the relative calm of the practice field is different to the real thing, but surely if a player has done all he can to hone his penalty skills it must benefit him when the shootout comes.

Teams practice free kicks and corners in training, so why not penalties?

Does a golfer not practice five-foot putts because it's not the same without the tension and audience of a major?

England has lost on penalties in five of its last eight appearances in the World Cup and European Championship. It has not been beaten by the opposition, simply let down its continued failure from 12 yards.

While taking a spot-kick under such circumstances requires huge mental strength, there is also a skill and practice makes [almost] perfect.

Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry, Rooney and Jermain Defoe are proficient penalty takers at club level. However, if it comes to a shootout, Germany knows it has the edge, so best for England to get the job done in 90 minutes.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.


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