Costa Rica 0 England 0
THE more things change, the more they stay the same and regardless of how much Roy Hodgson freshened up his Young Lions, they still lacked bite in Brazil last night.
Facing a Costa Rica side who were themselves in cruise control having already secured qualification, a familiar lack of width, indecision in the back four, and profligacy up front continued to dog England in Belo Horizonte.
It was the kind of goalless, resolute draw that would have been fine to start off the tournament, something to build on. It most definitely wasn’t the tonic we were all looking for, however, and more is the pity.
Psychological scars clearly run deep in the camp and while few present in yesterday’s game were involved in previous disappointments against Italy and Uruguay, their demeanour was that of a group of players whose confidence had been rocked to the core.
This time there is no South American linesman, no winking Portuguese winger or petulant Londoner to blame.
The team will fly back today with no-one but themselves to blame for the country’s earliest-ever exit from a World Cup tournament.
Only Gary Cahill and Daniel Sturridge remained from the lacklustre show against Uruguay, so perhaps it is unfair to be too critical on the side that took the field in the same city where England suffered their greatest-ever shock, against the USA, in 1950.
The youthful exuberance shown by Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and second-half sub Raheem Sterling was encouraging in brief patches – but equally their tendency to surrender possession deep in their own territory is a trait they need to rid themselves of quickly. Of the more experienced bunch it was a below-par exit for skipper Frank Lampard on what many believe will be his last international outing but a confident display from Ben Foster, who replaced Joe Hart in goal.
Foster made one superb save to touch Bryan Ruiz’s free kick on to the crossbar and diffused a lot of the nervousness in his defence by commanding his box well.
Sturridge had England’s best chances, some of which were self-made.
The Liverpool striker, once a loanee at Wanderers, caused problems with his movement but his final product was too often lacking.
A great one-two with Wilshere in the second half summed up the best of England’s enterprising youngsters but also highlighted one of Hodgson’s biggest problems, the lack of a real world class finisher.
It was the same out wide, where Shaw’s early promise evaporated and the wider players in England’s midfield, Adam Lallana in particular, looked to move inside far too often.
Steven Gerrard’s appearance off the bench for his 114th cap, replacing Wilshere, had an air of sentimentality about it, as did the Liverpool’s skipper’s pre-match interview, which seemed to hint that an end to international football is closer than he may have indicated earlier in the week.
Just before kick-off, commentator Clive Tyldesley rightly pointed out that in 1988, England arrived home from a dreadful European Championships to dog’s abuse – but with the addition of a couple of key players, most notably Paul Gascoigne, blossomed into the celebrated semi-finalists at Italia 90 two years later.
It would be fanciful to suggest the same could happen again. Will the likes of Shaw, Barkley and Sterling really have seen enough top level football by the time the European Championships come round in France? Probably not.
But by the time that tournament comes around again we will have had the opportunity to whet our whistle in qualifying and the flags, bunting and novelty T-shirts will be out in force again.