Time for England to stand up and be counted. Something even the most pessimistic of England fans would never have expected going into their final game in Group C against Slovenia, as they stand on the precipice of one of the most embarrassingly premature exits in World Cup history.
When the group draw was announced late last year, many thought England would cruise through, with three wins out of three against inferior opposition, casting all aside as they roared into the second round to send out a statement of intent to their rivals.
Sadly, but somewhat inevitably, it has been anything but that, as Fabio Capello’s men have to beat Slovenia in Port Elizabeth to be certain of qualifying for the last 16 in a tournament they were expected to excel in under the wily Italian coach.
Many thought their opening 1-1 draw against the USA was a blip, one that would be rectified in their following game against Algeria, however that proved to be even worse, with England failing to create any clear chances and looking jaded as they lumbered to a timid goalless draw
What has followed has been nothing short of a circus following rumours of disharmony in the camp, a supporter confronting David Beckham in the dressing room, Capello lamenting former captain John Terry’s decision to reveal all in a press conference ahead of a private meeting, and the out-of-form Wayne Rooney’s inexplicable outburst at television cameras criticising the supporters’ decision to boo their own team.
Add to all this rumours of some players calling upon Capello, whose job is speculated to be on the line, to change his formation and tactics ahead of the game and what we are left with is one simple goal – England must succeed.
Calls for Joe Cole and a 4-5-1 formation, with Rooney as a lone striker, are yet to be heeded, with Capello keeping a tight lid as usual on what he will choose to change, but there is likely to be at least one wielding of the axe, with Emile Heskey the most probable to receive it.
Slovenia will go into the game ruing their missed opportunity of taking two wins out of two, having gone 2-0 up against the US before half-time only to see their lead pegged back by Michael Bradley’s equaliser eight minutes before time.
In fact they were lucky to even take a point, after Maurice Edu bundled the ball home to complete the Americans’ comeback, only to see an inexplicable decision by the referee chalk off his effort.
Manager Matjaz Kek’s tactics are likely to be negative, knowing that stifling England to a draw will assure qualification for the last 16 for the first time in Slovenia’s history; however they do pose a goal threat that England must be aware of.
Auxerre playmaker Valter Birsa was outstanding against the US, scoring one of the goals of the tournament so far with a sweeping side-foot finish from range and strikers Milivoje Novakovic and Zlatan Ljubijankic caused the American defence problems.
The Slovenians did run out of steam in the second half however, eventually succumbing to the USA’s pressure as the game wore on, something Capello will be keen to exploit with pace in reserve.
England, who will line up in their red strip, are without doubt the favourites for the tie, but this is their last chance to salvage what has been a desperately disappointing start and they should do this if the likes of Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard get into their groove.
England’s only fitness problem ahead of the game is with Ledley King, who will miss the game as he is still nursing the groin injury sustained in their opening match.
King’s replacement against Algeria, Jamie Carragher, is suspended after picking up his second yellow card of the tournament, so Capello has confirmed West Ham defender Matthew Upson will take his place at the heart of defence.
Every player apart from King took part in training on Tuesday, so what happens with Capello’s selection will be the subject of intense speculation, although early rumours suggest Heskey will lose out with Jermain Defoe, who looked lively against Algeria, set to take his place.
Slovenia defender Marko Suler is likely to miss the match after sustaining a rib injury against the US and is set to be replaced by Matej Mavric at centre-back.
They will also be without midfielder Nejc Pecnik, who was a substitute against the Americans, but was flown home after breaking his ankle and is expected to be out for around three months, meaning he will miss the remainder of the finals.
Whether Kek will make further changes to his side will remain to be seen, but with Slovenia only needing a point, the 48-year-old may choose a side to set their stall out to defend against an England team desperate to prove they can handle the pressure.