England qualified for the last 16 of the World Cup, after an impressive display gave Fabio Capello’s men a one-nil win over Slovenia.
The decisive goal came after only 22 minutes through Jermain Defoe. James Milner’s brilliant cross was met by the striker, who replaced Emile Heskey for today’s match, and he managed to flick the ball of his leg and into the net.
It looked as though England were heading for top spot in the group, but Landon Donovan’s dramatic late winner in the other match Group C, meant USA would finish above them and, with it, knocking Slovenia out.
England started nervously in defence, and Glen Johnson and Mathew Upson both had dodgy clearances which gave Slovenia some early territorial pressure.
With the tempo of the match starting off slowly, it was not until the seventh minute did the first chance arrive. Some neat play by the Slovenians gave Valter Birsa the opportunity to run at the England defence. His shot from 25 yards, however, was straight at David James.
Then on the tenth minute, Johnson’s great cross field ball to Wayne Rooney allowed the Manchester United striker to dink in a back post cross, but the Slovenian defence got an important touch with Steven Gerrard poised just behind.
Frank Lampard was next to try his luck with a free-kick from over 35 yards. His dipping shot tested Samir Handanovic, but not enough to wrestle into the net.
England were now starting to come into the game, and Wayne Rooney’s deflected drive went just wide. From the resulting corner, John Terry’s header glanced over the ball, but he flashed his effort well wide.
Then, on the 20th minute, Zlatan Ljubijankic found himself with a bit of space for Slovenia. He continued to run into the box but, as soon as he shot, Terry was quickly over to cover and blocked the effort out for a corner.
But it was England who took the lead on the 22nd minute. James Milner collected the ball on the left hand touchline, and his excellent curing cross was perfect for Defoe to divert the ball past Handanovic.
In truth, Defoe had not even been in the match before now, and he owes the goal to Milner, who’s great cross was the architect to the English scoring the opening goal.
Then just minutes later, deja vu almost occurred. Again, Milner crossed in for Defoe, but the goalkeeper, this time, got a touch, and Lampard was unable to take full advantage of the scraps as he blasted over.
And it should have been two just before half an hour was played. Defoe’s effort was saved well by Handanovic, but the rebound kindly fell to Rooney, who then played in Gerrard. But the Liverpool star’s shot was saved brilliantly by the goalkeeper, despite losing the ball momentarily.
England were looking far more confident than previously and were really starting to put intense pressure on the Slovenian backline.
They did, though, receive a scare when a Slovenian free-kick forced James to punch the ball out. It wasn’t totally convincing from the goalkeeper, but the German referee, Wolfgang Stark, had already blown for an offence against Slovenia anyway.
The first half lead was a deserved one for Fabio Capello’s men. They looked far hungrier and were closing down the opposition faster than against USA and Algeria.
And then just after the break, Defoe was presented with the perfect opportunity to double his and his side’s advantage. With just a few yards out and with the goal gaping – only needing to beat the goalkeeper – the Tottenham striker somehow managed to place the ball wide of the post.
Johnson was then booked after being blocked when running across the Slovenian penalty area. The decision was a bad one by the referee, but he had a good game, this apart.
England were now well on top, and Rooney was just offside as he set up Defoe to tap home. And then a one-two from Gerrard and Rooney almost let the latter get a shot away, but he was quickly closed down as the danger was cleared.
The pressure continued and, after 57 minutes, Gareth Barry’s deep corner allowed Terry to force a strong header towards goal, but Handanovic was equal to the effort.
Rooney then should have scored a minute later, as England looked to finish off the match. The forward found himself clear, only 10 yards out, but his scuffed effort hit the post after another fantastic save from Handanovic.
If it wasn’t for Handanovic, England would have been home and dry by now. The fact that they weren’t meant it would be a nervy ending to the match for both sides.
Slovenia were always dangerous on the counter; mainly with the pace of Birsa and Novakovic.
And – but some great defending by the England backline, especially Terry – they would have equalised through, firstly Zlatko Dedic, then Novakovic and Birsa. However, their shots were all blocked, as England now started to look nervous for the first time in the match.
Rooney, who wasn’t fully fit, was then replaced by Joe Cole after 72 minutes; giving the exiting Chelsea star his first appearance of the finals.
As the game reached the final 15 minutes, both side’s looked wary, and they aware – because of what was happening in the match between USA and Algeria – the current score line was good enough for them both to qualify for the last 16.
Slovenia, however, continued to press with a series of set-pieces, but, despite a few scrappy moments, were wasteful with the crosses.
And then, on the ninety minute mark, Dedic almost found some space to fire the equaliser in and break England hearts, but Upson did enough to block the shot and James was able to smother the ball.
Then, as the final whistle blew, the news from Pretoria was that the U.S had scored in injury time against Algeria, sending Slovenia out and putting England into second place.
Slovenia: Handanovic, Brecko, Suler, Cesar, Jokic, Koren, Kirm (Dedic, 62), Radosavljevic, Ljubijankic (Dedic, 62), Birsa, Novakovic.
England: James, G Johnson, A Cole, Terry, Upson, Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Milner, Rooney (J Cole, 72), Defoe (Heskey, 86).