Some random observations after the third group fixtures:
Slovenia 0-1 England: The early going in this game was sluggish with neither team able to string together a series of passes to find openings for a shot. Wayne Rooney selfishly took a bad shot in the box when he had an unmarked teammate outside with a better view and angle. Midway through the first half, James Milner delivered an expert cross to the box where Jermain Defoe beat a defender to it and blasted it through the goalie. Milner and Defoe nearly hooked up again a few minutes later. The goal created some confidence in the English attack, and England increased its pace and tempo. Slovenia saw very few opportunities in the first half. The Three Lions kept up the pressure in the second half, but it was Milner on the right flank, not Gerrard on the left that did the creating. Defoe had a goal called off because he and Rooney were offside. Rooney later hit the post after a through ball got him behind the defense. England was not finishing well at all. Rooney got subbed out midway through the second half because of a sore ankle. Over the last ten minutes, play got ragged and there was a lot of fouling going on. Slovenia showed nothing on offense at all and played with no urgency. They may have been scoreboard watching and with the U.S. and Algeria tied into extra time, the Slovenians may have believed that they would advance even with a loss. England, needing the win to advance, was the better team and showed flashes on offense, but the continued poor play of Gerrard and their troubling inability to finish should temper any optimism they have.
United States 1-0 Algeria: The major change in Bob Bradley’s line-up was the benching of central defender Oguchi Onyewu, whose lapses led to both Slovenian goals in the last game. The U.S. again had a mental defensive lapse early lazily attempting to block a long ball into the box and allowing Rafik Djebbour an unimpeded strike, but it fortunately hit the crossbar. The Americans counterattacked quickly and Herculez Gomez, starting for the suspended Robbie Findley, unleashed a shot that Algerian goalie Rais M’Bolhi was caught leaning the wrong way on, but dived back to just barely knock the ball out. A great run by Altidore resulted in a Gomez shot that the goalie saved, but it deflected back to Gomez who put it to Clint Dempsey on the back post for an easy goal, but he was called offside. Horrible call as Dempsey was even with the defender and the Americans had another goal stolen from them. Algerian defense was in disarray on the sequence. U.S. created a lot of first half opportunities in the box, but did not find a way to finish. The Desert Foxes counterattacked effectively, but were not getting in the box and were relegated to taking long shots. Clint Dempsey got a good early second half opportunity, but banged it off the post and weakly sent his own rebound wide. When all hope seemed nearly lost, the U.S. finally scored in stoppage time. The sequence was set up by goalie Tim Howard, who made a good save and then threw a long ball to midfield for a fast break counterattack. Jozy Altidore delivered a low cross to the middle of the box where Clint Dempsey tried to flick it past M’Bolhi, but M’Bolhi slid into it, causing the ball to bounce back to the middle of the box where Landon Donovan crushed it into the back of the net. The Americans dominated the game and deserved the win that was nearly taken from them by another bad officiating call. However, like the English, the Americans missed many opportunities and need to find a finisher if they hope to go further. You do have to like the American’s resiliency though as time and time again, they have scored late goals when they needed to. The U.S. and England finished tied for first in the group, but the U.S. scored more goals than England and thus will be the number 1 seed out of Group C on the tiebreaker.
Some random observations after the second group fixtures:
Slovenia 2-2 United States: The only change in Bob Bradley’s starting line-up was Jose Torres in the midfield for Ricardo Clark. Torres is the more creative offensive player, so Bradley was looking to boost his offense. Yet again, the U.S. gave up an early goal on Valter Birsa’s beautiful 35-yarder into the top right corner of the net. Goalie Tim Howard appeared to be caught flat-footed six yards off the line and later admitted that his line of sight was blocked and he didn’t see the shot. Central defender Oguchi Onyewu also appeared tentative and side stepped instead of stepping up to challenge Birsa, who had all kinds of time to control the ball and power the shot. The Americans lack of early focus is troubling. U.S. had four excellent opportunities in a matter of minutes toward the end of the first half, but Slovenian goalie Samir Handanovic was up to the challenge. The referee booked American striker Robbie Findley for a phantom hand ball. Findley will serve a suspension in the next match because of yellow cards in each of the first two games. Unfortunately, this was not be the worst call to go against the U.S. Jut before half, the Slovenian counterattack fed a through ball to striker Zlatan Ljubijankic in the box and he beat Howard with a well-struck ball to the far post. Other than one brief burst, the U.S. played tentatively and Slovenia was the better team in the first half. The Americans really went on the offensive in the second half.. Landon Donovan quickly took advantage of a defensive misstep to sweep in alone from the right wing, then, like a quarterback looking off a defensive back, duped Handanovic into believing he was going to deliver a cross before blasting a shot right by the goalie’s head. Handanovic actually flinched backward to avoid being hit by the ball. It’s a different American team in the second half. More energy, crisper passes, tighter marking. The Slovenians got chippy midway through, sloppily taking down Americans from behind several times, resulting in yellow cards. Despite the dominance, the U.S. kept just missing shots until Michael Bradley ran onto a header from Altidore and banged it past Handanovic for the tying goal. Minutes after that, Maurice Edu slammed in the go ahead goal off a Donovan free kick, but the referee claimed a foul by the Americans and called it off. This is the call that will be endlessly discussed. Replays showed several Slovenians grabbing and holding Americans on the play and one American doing the same. None of it had any influence on the play. The referee never explained the foul call and it cost the Americans a win. The Americans showed great resilience coming back from a two-goal deficit, but deserved the win after playing a dynamic second half. Fortunately, they still control their own fate and will advance if they beat Algeria in their last group fixture. Slovenia can advance with a win or tie against England.
England 0-0 Algeria: Not surprisingly, Fabio Capello replaced first fixture goat, Robert Green in the goal with David “Calamity“ James. Gareth Berry also returned from his ankle injury to the starting line-up as the defensive center midfielder. The Three Lions should feel more confident allowing both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to push up on the attack in this game. James survived his first pressure making a leaping grab on a corner kick among several Algerian players. The Desert Foxes play a disciplined defense and seem to be frustrating the English strikers and their counterattack applies a lot of pressure on the English back four. As expected, Gerrard and Lampard press forward at every opportunity, but even without the responsibility of the holding midfield position, they still appear disjointed and lack vision. The English put more shots on goal than the Algerians, but most were not troublesome and the Algerians legitimately held England to a first half standstill. This is not the mismatch everyone expected. Gerrard blew an excellent early second half opportunity when a defensive miscue gave the English attack the ball and numbers, but Gerrard’s weak cross aimed at no one in particular was easily intercepted. Gerrard had a very poor game overall, showing none of his usual creative flair. Algeria showed little second half offense, really packed their defense behind the ball, and looked to be playing for the tie. England finally started playing with some desperation midway through, but were reduced to firing long range shots because of the complete failure of their offense to attain any kind of sync. England has looked nothing like the top 10 team they are supposed to be and, like the French, appear to be imploding. The Three Lions will advance with a win against Slovenia. A tie will do them no good unless Algeria manages to beat the Americans or it is a very high-scoring tie. The Algerians only shot at advancement is to beat the U.S and have the English lose to Slovenia.