|ESPN.com: World Cup 2010||[Print without images]|
PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- As American fans jumped for joy, English fans returned from the ledge.
Told it was spoiled, told it wasn't up to facing the pressure of being one of the marquee teams at the World Cup, and close a historic collapse, England responded with a 1-0 victory over Slovenia on Wednesday that not only made it runner-up to the United States in Group C but also gave it the unofficial title of being the most relieved team to advance to the knockout stages.
The U.S. wins the group, the English are just happy to advance. Talk about role reversal.
Sometimes you can tell a lot more about a team based on how it reacts to failure, and though England stuffed itself into an unimaginable corner, the fact its players performed as capably as they did against Slovenia says that plenty of fight remains in this team.
How did they do it? Easy, everyone finally started playing their designated roles. Fabio Capello, the highest-paid coach at the World Cup, showed why he's worth the money. He started Jermain Defoe, who scored on a terrific cross from James Milner, who Capello also wisely moved into a starting slot.
Strategy aside, it seemed mainly that England put together its best match of the tournament -- which I realize isn't saying much considering how poorly it played against Algeria -- because the players decided to put all the nonsense and drama behind them.
"Do I feel vindicated? No," Capello said. "Why? This is the team I know. This is the spirit we had during qualification."
Capello theorized following the disappointing draw with Algeria that this team was caving under the pressure, and while England had some loose moments late in the second half against Slovenia, it's unlikely that England will face as much pressure going forward as it did heading into this match.
A loss against Slovenia would have saddled this team with the awful distinction of being the only English side to fail to get past the first round since 1958. With that burden lifted, England is free to play the style that had the team pegged as one of the World Cup favorites. The reported rifts between Capello and the players don't matter anymore, because England has advanced past the group stage in its 10th straight World Cup.
"I'm sure we played with more confidence because we found the spirit," Capello said.
Prior to the Slovenia match, Capello also said he felt as though England was still in prime position to win the World Cup. And he wasn't just saying what you'd expect any coach to say about his team. It happens to be true.
In a tournament like this one, a team's performance in group play can be exaggerated. There certainly have been examples of teams that were hot in group play but fizzled in the next round.
Another bonus for England is that though star Wayne Rooney remains goal-less in the World Cup and plagued by an ankle injury, he showed against Slovenia that he's waking up. He had four shots on goal, including a clean shot that hit the post.
England's defense has been leaky at times, but the fact the team has given up just one freak goal in three matches solidifies that it can play with just about anyone.
The most important thing for England is the team has something to build on, though the squads now in their path will be better than Slovenia, Algeria and the United States.
Regardless, the Three Lions are moving on, knowing that the worst is already behind them.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.