Japan 1 England 2
Fabio Capello will spend an uncomfortable 48 hours deciding who to trust with England’s World Cup fate after a thoroughly unconvincing victory against Japan in Graz.
An embarrassing defeat against the side ranked 45th by FIFA and fifth worst among the 32 that will contest the greatest prize in South Africa was avoided thanks to a couple of late own goals.
But the overall display will have convinced no-one, least of all their astute coach, about England’s durability. The side Capello has moulded so carefully for so long now seems riddled with anxiety and imperfections.
And after he makes the difficult seven telephone calls on Tuesday morning to inform those who have not made the cut, Capello can only hope those left land in a much better state in Johannesburg on Thursday morning than they will leave.
Nothing definitive can be read into any pre-World Cup performance.
Four years ago, Italy were no-one’s idea of winners until they actually beat France in the final.
Yet, having posed so many questions of their manager in beating Mexico on Monday, if there were answers to be gleaned here, they made for pretty unpalatable viewing.
Aaron Lennon was ill at ease on the left wing and with so much to gain on his first start, Tom Huddlestone failed to stem the flow of Japanese attacks from his midfield holding role.
Up front, Darren Bent linked well enough with Wayne Rooney but when presented with his one golden first-half opportunity when Yuji Nakazawa looped Rio Ferdinand’s long ball skywards, the man who scored 25 times for Sunderland this season headed wide.
All this was bad enough. Behind them, England’s defence was having a collective shocker.
Paired together for only the ninth time in Capello’s entire reign – and the first since the captain’s armband was passed between them – Rio Ferdinand and John Terry both seemed unsure of themselves.
Cole took a long time to settle and at right-back, Glen Johnson was as bad as he had been good against the Mexicans.
Johnson and Huddlestone were at fault for Japan’s goal, a nice training ground technique as Yasuhito Endo drilled a low corner into the box for Marcus Tanaka to thump in from 10 yards.
It was a well-worked effort but it required Johnson to lose Tanaka as he made his run across the England box and Huddlestone to move away from the near post as the ball flashed past him.
England’s response was positive without being convincing, or containing an end product.
Rooney was only just off target when he steered Huddlestone’s shot much nearer the Japan goal and, with the balls that are to be used in South Africa, Frank Lampard let fly from fully 40 yards, the dip and serve providing too much for Eiji Kawashima, who was thankful Tanaka came to his aid.
If Capello expressed his displeasure at half-time on Monday, presumably his mood was even worse as the interval whistle blew.
He might have had a number of substitutes in mind, but as Huddlestone and Bent were among the five men replaced, it did not seem Capello thought their auditions had gone well.
With Shaun Wright-Phillips on the left, Joe Cole operating behind lone striker Wayne Rooney and, on his 30th birthday, Steven Gerrard pulling the strings alongside Lampard in midfield, England returned a more balanced outfit.
But once Lampard followed his spot-kick miss in the FA Cup final by having his penalty saved by Kawashima after Keisuke Honda had blocked the Chelsea man’s free-kick with his arm, they started to get agitated.
Rooney was involved in an ugly-looking clash with Tanaka and even Capello got embroiled in a touchline spat with a member of the Japanese coaching staff, who had taken exception to the Three Lions’ increasingly robust tackling.
Had Joe Hart not made a couple of excellent saves either side of Lampard’s penalty failure, part of an eye-catching second-half display from the young keeper, England would not have been in a position to have Japan transform the game on their behalf.
As it was Tanaka panicked when Cole swung over a cross that probably would not have reached Rooney at the far post, and prodded the ball into his own goal.
Then, when Ashley Cole crossed from the other side, Nakazawa turned the ball into his own net, again Rooney’s presence playing a mental trick to force the defender into a rash mistake.
Emile Heskey failed to put an England name on the scoresheet at the death when he glanced Gerrard’s curling cross wide.
But the thunderstorm that accompanied the final whistle was an ominous warning of what lies ahead next month if the Three Lions cannot find their roar.