With Fabio Capello choosing to rest several first team Chelsea players alongside fellow FA Cup finalist and Portsmouth goalkeeper David James from the England side that faced Mexico at Wembley, the unbalanced team underperformed with a scrappy 3-1 victory that papered over the cracks.
At the APC Arena in Graz, Austria this Sunday a more recognizable England side lined up against a Japanese first XI that had previously lost 5 of its last 6 matches. Ashley Cole, John Terry and Frank Lampard were all returned to the starting line up. Joe Cole found himself in increasingly familiar territory; the substitutes’ bench for this final World Cup warm up.
In central defence, Terry partnered Rio Ferdinand for the first time since being stripped of the England captaincy and showed a few uncharacteristic nerves in the first half. This perhaps owing to the early lead surrendered to a Japanese side that pressed and contained England effectively. Ferdinand too seemed unused to his new role, whilst Terry grew in stature as the game grew on and defied those who doubted his ability to lead with a series of strong tackles and winning headers, all the while bellowing orders to his midfield with a passion that the impasse Ferdinand seemed to neglect. One shaky late moment when a glancing clearance skimmed his own bar aside it was a stout yet unremarkable showing from the Chelsea captain.
Ashley Cole was notable for an assured and confident display that further enhanced his credentials as first choice left-back. The defender showed no signs of pressure from outside sources after further tabloid and transfer speculation had emerged in the week and tackled resolutely and attacked with verve and commitment. Cole created the late England winner with a fast paced right footed shot/cross which took only the slightest of touches from the incoming Japanese defender who guided the ball into his own net. A fantastic resurgence from a player who only 2 months ago looked set to miss the finals with a broken ankle.
England’s threat was undermined as Frank Lampard cut a lonely figure in the first half, owing more to frustration at Tom Huddlestone’s lack of decisiveness and inability to push forward into the channels opened up by the midfielder. The second-half however was a renaissance. With the confidence of playing alongside the familiar Steven Gerrard (a 45th minute change for the Spurs central man), Lampard was able to pick up the ball and seek out the wide threat of Aaron Lennon and his former Stamford Bridge team mate Shaun Wright-Phillips. The only blot that Capello could have noted in his copybook would have been the penalty miss in the 55th minute. After drilling a direct free kick into the wall, which was adjudged to have been handled by CSKA Moscow man Keisuke Honda, Lampard stepped up himself to take the penalty. After an uncharacteristic run up Lampard side footed the ball to the right and saw his second successive penalty saved. It was a tame effort all told but as is the opinion of many, it is better to miss these seemingly ‘unimportant’ spot kicks than any potential World Cup deciders.
Lampard himself was unaffected by the miss, stating after the game that he was as confident as ever from 12 yards out. Furthermore, Fabio Capello was unshaken in his belief that Lampard would continue as first choice penalty taker in the finals and even found time to crack a joke when questioned that the player had missed his last two spot kicks: “this is true, but not the third,” the Italian quipped.
So if Cole was reliable, Terry resolute and Lampard effective without being clinical then Joe Cole was a revelation. That being said it should come as no surprise to many Chelsea fans.
After coming on as a half time substitute for the lacklustre Darren Bent, Cole wasted no time in getting himself noticed by the manager. Whilst it was by no means vintage Joe Cole, the player showed flashes of brilliance that has endeared him to the Stamford Bridge faithful, and has many praying that he will sign a new deal with the club. Given his favoured free role he has he was able to sit in front of the midfield and unlock the Japanese defence with ingenuity, flair and drive. He tracked back and defended when called upon, fed Rooney through with a delightful reverse pass and gained an assist for the equaliser in the 72nd minute. The midfielder found himself unmarked in acres of space on the right hand side, before cutting in and fizzing a speculative cross into the six-yard box that was turned it by the kamikaze defending of centre back Marcus Tanaka, who had also scored Japans early opener. Rotated across the midfield on both right and left flanks as well as centrally over the 45 minutes he was on the pitch, his versatility as much as his work rate may have ensured an unlikely turnaround in fortunes for a player who has endured a testing season at club level.
Cole will be hopeful of boarding the plane to South Africa leaving those frustrations behind. There are few Chelsea fans back home who would begrudge him that chance.