LONDON — The celebrations of the wonderful Ghana fans went on long after the memorable 1-1 draw with England at Wembley.
By general consensus it was the best friendly even the most seasoned members of the English media could remember, making a mockery of Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertion that it was “meaningless” a statement, ironically, made while he was in the United States to finalize Manchester United’s plans for a preseason tour.
Young lions Jack Wilshere, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing gave further notice that the old guard should not expect an immediate recall when the Euro 2012 qualifiers resume in June when Switzerland visits Wembley.
Andy Carroll took his goal superbly in only his third start after 10 weeks on the sidelines because of injury. Even Fabio Capello smiled.
You know there is a but coming . . . and here it is.
But England has failed to win four of its last eight and three of its last five matches, underlining the fear that when it comes up against decent opposition it falls short.
Pouring such cold water on a hugely entertaining draw three days after defeating Wales, 116th in the FIFA rankings, 2-0, has the hallmark of a spoilsport or a realist, take your pick.
“I hope that people will talk about us as they did about Germany,” said Capello. Not yet, Fabio.
Technically and tactically England is still way behind the cream of Europe and this observer will eat a bowl of sushi between the lions at Trafalgar Square if Capello’s last act as manager is to lift the European Championship trophy in the summer of 2012.
World and European champion Spain — almost a Barcelona and Real Madrid select XI — remains a class act; Holland, beaten finalists in South Africa, will, again be there or thereabouts; Germany’s combination of brilliant youth (Thomas Mueller, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira), the outstanding Phillip Lahm, Bastien Schweinsteiger, Manuel Neuer and Per Metersacker, plus Miroslav Klose, marginalized at Bayern Munich but an international goal-scoring machine, will see it in the last four at least; France, under Laurent Blanc, is steadily improving; Belgium is a decent outside bet.
England should qualify for the finals in Poland and Ukraine whether as group winners or the best runnerup, but the World Cup went so badly in just about every respect that the jury will remain out until it plays another international finals.
No one saw the debacle of South Africa coming, so fans and media will reserve judgment until 2010.
However, there is reason for cautious optimism. Joe Hart has established himself as England’s goalkeeper, so there will be none of the farce of last year when no one apart from Capello knew which of Hart, Robert Green or David James would start at the World Cup.
Glen Johnson, who has started more England games than anyone over the past year (13 out of 14), John Terry and Ashley Cole remain the defensive backbone.
In midfield, Wilshere, at 19 and a year ago nowhere near the full international side, is almost a permanent fixture. Downing, Young and Aaron Lennon can give England pace and width in Capello’s new and welcome 4-3-3 system.
The undeniably talented but fragile Theo Walcott is dropping down the pecking order. How Capello decides to use Steve Gerrard and Frank Lampard in central midfield remains to be seen.
In attack, Wayne Rooney will be missing from the game against Switzerland after a typically unnecessary yellow card picked up against Wales. The red mist will probably never disappear, it’s part of the package.
Liverpool’s new £35 million striker Carroll won praise for his performance against Ghana, though I remain unconvinced he has the technique to frighten the best defenses.
Capello will surely have learned from his World Cup errors, and the new England side in a new formation has at least rebuilt some of the confidence dented by what happened in South Africa, but sorry Fabio, it remains some way behind Germany.
IT IS BUSINESS as usual in the Premier League after a two-week break.
Manchester United plays in-form West Ham at the Boleyn Ground, where it does not have the best of records, Arsenal entertains Blackburn, Chelsea travels to Stoke and Sunderland visits Manchester City.
On the face of it Arsenal has the easiest task, though the Gunners have a frustrating habit of failing when winning seems the more likely option.
The unpredictable nature of this season should see a photo-finish come next month. What is far more likely is that City will bore the pants off us in its remaining fixtures.
The oil-rich owners have bankrolled £400 million worth of new players since Sept. 2008, yet City has the entertainment level of the Siberian terrain.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.