LUCKY POINT A CAUSE FOR CONCERN
England completed a rather dull international double-header with a grim 0-0 draw in Ljubljana. Gareth Southgate’s men had Joe Hart to thank, after some brilliant saves earnt England a draw against a Slovenia side that can consider themselves unlucky not to have come away with all three points. Jordan Henderson captained his country for the first time.
Danny Rose and Eric Dier came into the England team, four days after the unconvincing 2-0 victory over Malta. Wayne Rooney and the injured Ryan Bertrand were both left out. La Liga goalkeeper Jan Oblak started for the home side, whose only striker, Roman Bezjak, earnt his fifteenth cap. He has only one goal to his name and that, with all due respect, came in a friendly against Macedonia.
England started, as they often do these days, with blistering pace. Captain Jordan Henderson dispossessed Slovenia’s most gifted player, Josip Iličić, and began a counter-attack. Henderson found Alli, who ran at the Slovenia defence. A cute ball into striker Daniel Sturridge beat the offside-trap, but the forward was too slow to react, and a poor touch saw a great chance wasted. Not two minutes later, Dier took a chance by passing back to Joe Hart without looking. An under-hit pass was nabbed by Bezjak, whose low finish was expertly smothered by Hart. The ball ran free, and a cross found Bezjak again. Gary Cahill got a foot on the ball, which landed straight into the path of unmarked midfielder Jasmin Kurtić. The number eight teed himself up and whipped the ball ferociously past Hart. It cannoned off of the post, and when it came back to Bezjak for a third time, his casual effort swung wildly away for a goal-kick. Only good fortune had kept England level at the break.
Slovenia picked up where they left off, in the second period, as they had the first real chance of the game. An Iličić corner was swung in dangerously, and a stooping header from captain Boštjan Cesar came off the back of John Stones. The goal-bound effort was well watched by Joe Hart, who parried the ball away well. Off it went for another corner. This time Kurtić flicked the ball on, flying into the top corner. Joe Hart produced an absolutely world class stop, to deny Slovenia a goal. Having hurled himself into the air, his left hand tipped the ball onto crossbar, before his flailing right hand stopped the ball creeping over the line. Danny Rose, under pressure, slid down and cleared the ball out to winger Valter Birsa, whose tight angle effort crashed wide. Hart, amongst the drama, had landed against his post, but after a few minutes of physio assessment, he continued bravely.
Theo Walcott, off the pace compared to Saturday, was replaced by Andros Townsend. The ever-energetic Crystal Palace man shot low with his first chance on the ball. Jan Oblak dived, and saved well. A matter of minutes later, another lapse in England concentration saw Slovenia gifted another clear chance. Skipper Henderson under-hit a no-look pass back to Cahill, who critically went in instead of holding his ground. Ultimately Cahill was outrun, and Josip Iličić went through one-on-one. Hart flew out from his goal again, and smothered the ball against the odds for the fourth time in the game.
Wayne Rooney came on for the mostly anonymous Dele Alli. England had their chance to take the lead when Kyle Walker’s pass left Jesse Lingard in enough space to find Sturridge’s run. The Liverpool forward found himself shooting from an angle; and Oblak gathered easily. A while later, home substitute Miha Mevlja’s block ran nicely for Rooney, but his poor form was marked by his narrowly wide whipped effort. The first real play of quality down England’s left wing all night saw their best chance of the night. Rose round Rooney, who quickly released Lingard, in acres of space. The Manchester United midfielder ran at the defence before unleashing a monstrous strike at goal from range. Oblak threw himself at it, and tipped in wide for a corner. A lively, yet goalless, affair in Slovenia ended Slovenia 0-0 England. Despite having over a third of the possession, England were lucky in Ljubljana. The Three Lions lead Group F by two points – as Scotland were whacked 3-0 in Slovakia, and Lithuania saw off minnows Malta late on.