The silence of England’s reluctant captain had dominated England’s build-up while the prospect of Daniel Sturridge making his full international debut had provided a more compelling subtext.
Both, however, proved to be little more than side-issues — unfortunately so in the case of Sturridge who was forced off with injury after just 32 minutes — as a more familiar England problem was exposed, largely by Shane Long.
England’s central defence has frequently been a point of weakness ever since Rio Ferdinand’s knee injury immediately before the 2010 World Cup broke the Manchester United defender’s long-standing partnership with John Terry.
A succession of off-field controversies, injuries and, ultimately, the decision of both players to retire from international football forced first Fabio Capello and then Roy Hodgson to experiment with a succession of different partnerships with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka of Everton adjudged to be the best available although the manager may well be tempted to revise that view after Long’s opening goal.
England’s problems began in the build-up to the West Brom forward’s towering header with the home side guilty of failing to apply anything like enough pressure on Seamus Coleman as the Everton defender prepared to deliver an excellent cross. But alarmingly for Hodgson, it was Glen Johnson, his right back, who was left to track Long while his centre-backs floundered, hopelessly out of position.
The movement of Long and Robbie Keane frequently left the England backline looking ragged in the second half although the home back four were provided with some relief in the second half when their more forward colleagues were able to sustain longer periods of pressure inside the Irish half.
It was only then that England appeared to exert any kind of control on the game although even then they mustered few chances, the best falling to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, who were both denied by excellent saves from David Forde after being left one on one with the keeper.
There had been promising early signs for England when Wayne Rooney got in behind Sean St Ledger to connect with Frank Lampard’s floated pass. Rooney looked sharper than he has done for some time, and understandably appeared to be playing with an edge borne from his frustration at being forced to operate in a peripheral role during the final weeks of Manchester United’s title push.
His best work was done in the second half when he operated in the space between Ireland’s centre backs and the midfield pair of Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy.
England’s biggest threat during the opening half hour, however, came from Sturridge who showed signs he is capable of operating as the apex of his country’s attack before damaging ankle ligaments in the 32nd minute.
Sturridge’s touch and pace had caused problems, drawing the attention of Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea and Jonathan Walters before threading a pass through his three opponents that led to Frank Lampard’s equaliser.
On that occasion Lampard benefited from Whelan’ failure to track back but otherwise the Chelsea midfielder had only limited success against the Irish midfield. Partnered by Michael Carrick, England’s central midfield boasted a combined age of 65 and at times, especially in the first half, it showed.
Whelan and James McCarthy pressed the home pair back, forcing them to operate from deep positions, rendering the long ball the only option as they attempted to bridge the yawning gap between England’s midfield and the frontline.
Coleman’s impressive work on the right ensured that Ashley Cole’s one-off experience of wearing the captain’s armband was marked by hard defensive graft. It was certainly one of the defender’s more testing nights and the combined efforts of Coleman and Walters denied the Chelsea man the opportunity to support his own attack.
Cole was eventually withdrawn in favour of Leighton Baines in the 54th minute, a reflection of either Hodgson’s desire to keep the left-back fresh for the trip to Brazil or, more likely, evidence of the growing competition for the left-back berth.
Elsewhere, Walcott, supported in the first half by Glen Johnson, steadily got the better of Stephen Kelly, but the quality of his service from the right hand flank varied in quality while Oxlade-Chamberlain came out second best in his tussle with Coleman.
In their new kit, England looked like Germany but played like, er, England. Now they head to Brazil with only 15 fit outfield players, 14 if Oxlade-Chamberlain’s late calf injury is worse than it first seemed. Hodgson certainly has plenty to think about on today’s long flight to Rio.
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