IF only conquering the rest of South America was as easy as this.
England’s players will fly out to their pre-World Cup training base in Florida tomorrow buoyed by a comfortable 3-0 win over Peru that, while hardly guaranteeing success in Brazil next month, at least ensured Roy Hodgson’s side retained the momentum that was generated in the closing stages of the qualifying campaign last autumn.
Against limited opposition who nevertheless created a few scares, especially before the interval, goals from Daniel Sturridge, Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka enabled England to sign off from Wembley in style.
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They might not have produced a performance packed with flair but, for the most part, they were neat and tidy in possession, reasonably well organised in midfield and defence, and able to pick up the pace when the state of the game demanded it.
A clean sheet is not be sniffed at given the likelihood of tight matches against Italy and Uruguay next month, and the sight of England’s younger players pouring forward in the closing stages underlined the range of options that will exist on the substitutes’ bench in Brazil.
This remains a side in transition, but at least it should be considerably more exciting to watch than the stale outfits that underperformed so spectacularly at the last World Cup in South Africa and the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine.
Hodgson’s starting line-up was always going to be of as much interest as the match itself with England’s opening World Cup fixture against Italy now just two weeks away, and Wearsider Jordan Henderson was arguably the biggest winner in terms of the pre-match selection.
Henderson proved a perfect foil for Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard for the majority of last season, and it appears as though Hodgson is leaning towards fielding the duo alongside each other at the midfield base of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Henderson’s all-action style should be ideally suited to the energy-sapping conditions England will encounter in their opening game close to the shores of the Amazon, and the 23-year-old should make history next month by becoming the first Wearsider to represent his country in a World Cup finals.
Last night’s audition was acceptable rather than eye-catching, with Henderson using the ball effectively whenever he played short, sharp passes to those around him, but often failing to find his target when he attempted a more adventurous ball into one of England’s attackers. It will be interesting to see whether second-half substitute Jack Wilshere is given a start in next week’s matches against Ecuador and Honduras.
Hodgson must also use those games to finalise the identity of his two wide midfielders. Last night, Adam Lallana, started on the right-hand side, with Danny Welbeck lining up on the left, but with Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both pushing for a starting spot, neither can afford to take their World Cup starting spot for granted. Like Henderson, they were functional rather than fantastic.
England’s best moments from open play came when Rooney and Sturridge threatened, and the pair’s partnership will surely be pivotal to their side’s chances in Brazil.
In the last two World Cups, a half-fit Rooney competed with the weight of the nation on his shoulders, and flopped as a result. He will head to Brazil still hoping to score his first World Cup goal, but at least this time around he can call on the support of an in-form centre-forward to assist him.
Sturridge was the leading English scorer in last season’s Premier League with 21 goals, and last night’s 32nd-minute opener was the act of a player brimming with confidence.
Picking up the ball from Glen Johnson’s throw in, Sturridge drifted around two Peruvian defenders before curling a superb 20-yard strike into the top left-hand corner of the net. The 24-year-old’s conversion ratio might remain something of a cause for concern, but his presence means England will finally be heading to a tournament with a striker other than Rooney capable of doing something out of the ordinary.
In truth, England needed that touch of magic to break down an obdurate Peruvian side who performed above themselves given that they had not won a game for almost an entire calendar year.
The South Americans were selected to replicate the style England will encounter when they take on Uruguay in their second group game, but with the visitors regularly pulling nine men behind the ball, the challenge of breaking down a massed defence was rather different to the threat that will be posed by Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan next month.
Nevertheless, the task of patiently retaining possession was a worthwhile exercise given England’s failings in that department in previous tournaments, and on the whole, the hosts probed away diligently without resorting to too many aimless long balls.
It was only when they changed pace that they really threatened however, with Lallana’s mazy 19th-minute dribble into the area teeing up Sturridge for a scuffed shot that was dragged wide of the target.
Joe Hart had been tested twice at that stage, first racing off his line to deny Jean Deza as the winger threatened to get in behind Leighton Baines and then leaping athletically to claim a deflected 25-yard shot from the same player.
Peru’s counter-attacking was somewhat primitive, but Hodgson will have been alarmed at the ease with which the visitors bypassed the England midfield on a handful of occasions in the first half. For all that Gerrard has reinvented himself as a holding midfielder, there is still a fear that England are susceptible to a world-class creative midfielder in the manner of Mezut Ozil or Andrea Pirlo, who picked them apart in the last two major competitions.
Sturridge’s goal calmed any mounting nerves, although Hart was forced to produce a fine save on the stroke of half-time to deny Luis Ramirez after he broke into the right-hand side of the area and was almost caught out ten minutes after the break when the inventive Deza spotted him off his line, only to drift a 35-yard shot over the crossbar.
As the second half wore on, England’s dominance became more pronounced, and Hodgson’s side increased their victory margin when they scored from two set-pieces in the space of five minutes.
The goals went to the two centre-halves, with Cahill claiming the first as he outmuscled his marker to powerfully head home Baines’ corner. The Chelsea defender now has three international goals to his name, and his aerial presence could be a key factor next month.
Jagielka is not quite as prolific, but he reacted quickest to bundle home England’s third after Peru goalkeeper Raul Fernandez had failed to hold on to another inviting delivery from Baines.