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England needs defense to step it up to have shot at World Cup glory

by Christopher Davies

LONDON — England is unlikely to win the 2010 World Cup.

A first knockout round meeting with Germany and the possibility of a penalty shootout beckons. Such a scenario always brings back Gary Lineker’s quote: “Football is a simple game. You play for 120 minutes and then the Germans win on penalties.”

In the NFL, they say that offense wins championships but defense wins titles. The same applies to the World Cup and European Championship, the two premier football competitions in the world.

It is not so much the goals a team scores, but the number it concedes and the best let in none at the business end of tournaments.

Under Fabio Capello, England has managed seven clean sheets in 23 games against Andorra (home and away), Kazakhstan (a), Trinidad & Tobago (a), Slovakia (h), USA (h) and Belarus (h). In other words, when England plays a decent or even a half-decent team it concedes a goal.

This is not a recipe for a World Cup winner and England’s cause has not been helped by the knee injury that prematurely ended Rio Ferdinand’s World Cup.

Capello comes from Italy, where defensive football was mastered, but so far has been unable to stop the rot.

Spain won Euro 2008 after not conceding a goal in the knockout stages. Ditto Greece four years previously, which bored Europe to death with 1-0 set-piece victories.

Italy conceded only two goals as it became 2006 world champions, an own-goal and a penalty, so no goals allowed from open play by an opponent.

The Italians didn’t have the best players, but they had the best team and certainly the best defense.

It is a familiar pattern. France’s 1998 success was not down to the goals it scored despite the presence of playmaker supreme Zinedine Zidane.

Les Bleus’ triumph was built on goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and a back-four of Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu with “water carrier” Didier Deschamps the midfield enforcer.

England should be good enough to win Group C, though its opening tie against the United States on Saturday looks like a potential banana skin.

Ideally, Capello would not have preferred to play the USA first, but as the group also includes Algeria and Slovenia, that was probably asking too much.

The USA is experienced, battle-hardened, well-organized by coach Bob Bradley; last year it became the first team to beat Spain in 35 games in the Confederations Cup semifinal and lost 3-2 to Brazil in the final.

Landon Donovan, who impressed in a loan spell at Everton last season, and Fulham’s Clint Dempsey are sharp, pacey forwards who will stretch England’s defense. The Americans’ backline includes West Ham’s Jonathan Spector and Jay DeMerit of Watford, but the sum total is greater than the individual parts.

The pluses for England are that in Capello they could hardly have a more astute coach. Ashley Cole is as good as any left-back in the world. Wayne Rooney has proved he can frighten the best teams in Europe with club and country. Despite his off-field problems, John Terry typifies the bulldog spirit of England. Frank Lampard has just completed his fifth 20-plus goals season and while new captain Steven Gerrard has not had a vintage campaign, he has shown he is a man for the big occasion.

The worries are that none of the England goalkeepers is top international class standard. Robert Green and David James have at least been kept busy as West Ham and Portsmouth battled against relegation, but the best goalkeeper on form last season is Joe Hart, who has never played a competitive match for England.

Backup left-back Stephen Warnock has played only six minutes of international football; Gareth Barry, fundamental to Capello’s system, has not played for a month because of an ankle injury, and whoever replaces Ferdinand has a question mark over him.

There are also concerns about Wayne Rooney’s temperament which has improved, but a foul-mouthed rant at a South African referee in a friendly against Platinum Stars earlier this week showed the red mist is only just below the surface.

The England players should also be aware they will not be able to get away with some of the tackles the lenient Premier League officials permit and indulge.

If England tops Group C, it will play the runnerup of Group D which comprises Australia, Germany, Ghana and Serbia.

Germany has lost some key players, notably captain Michael Ballack and goalkeeper Rene Adler, while strikers Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski have had poor club seasons.

Serbia, despite having a goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojkovic of Wigan, who too often looks like he has never played in the position before, is a dark horse.

This is its first World Cup as an independent nation and coach Raddy Antic has fashioned a strong, passing team. It would not be the biggest of surprises if Serbia edged Joachim Loew’s side for first place, which is likely to set up another World Cup summit meeting between England and Germany.

Victory over Germany would make Capello a folk hero in his adopted country and rarely will England have a better chance of getting one over on the team that has gained revenge in three major tournaments since England beat West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final.

Only twice in the last 12 World Cups has England reached the last four and its road to any final will probably see it face Serbia/Germany, France and Brazil.

My heart will always say England, but my head says Brazil. It will have three of Inter Milan’s Champions League-winning defense — Julio Cesar, Maicon and Lucio — and Michel Bastos could be a revelation at left-back, fit again Kaka, Luis Fabiano and Robinho ooze goals.

* * * * *

EMILE HESKEY is a more effective international striker than Cristiano Ronaldo and Fernando Torres. This obviously needs explaining.

Strikers are judged by the goals they score or perhaps do not score.

Heskey is ridiculed because he has scored only seven goals in 58 internationals. A non-scoring striker who many supporters would not have in the England squad let alone the team.

Heskey, Ronaldo and Torres each played in seven 2010 qualifying games. Heskey scored one goal for England away to Kazakhstan.

Ronaldo and Torres both failed to score a single goal between them in their seven matches for Portugal and Spain, respectively.

That may not make Heskey a better player than Ronaldo and Torres, just more prolific — an astonishing if indisputable fact.

Yes, there are lies, damn lies and statistics, but the fact is Heskey, valued at £75 pounds by some critics, outscored Ronaldo, who cost Real Madrid £75 million from Manchester United and Torres, who would cost any would-be buyer at least £50 million for a club to pry him away from Liverpool.

A colleague watched all of England’s 2010 qualifiers before leaving for South Africa (after attending his Get A Life class I suggested) and concentrated on Heskey. He was left searching for superlatives to describe the selfless, unseen work and running of Heskey to create space for his teammates.

Being a striker is not just about scoring goals and, while at first this may appear a contradiction, I know what he meant. At the same time, Heskey may be the most unappreciated member of the England squad.

It is two years since Ronaldo scored a competitive goal for Portugal. His lone strike since 2008 was a goal against Finland 16 months ago.

Since scoring the winner against Germany in the Euro 2008 final, Torres has only scored in one competitive game, against New Zealand in last year’s Confederations Cup.

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