Ken Early: Russia’s ruthless split-second shines a harsh light on England
Roy Hodgson’s side show dangers of being so inefficient in front of goal
Ruassia’s Vasili Berezutski heads over Joe Hart to equalise against England in Marseille. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
England 1 Russia 1
Mexican fans have a saying that gets rolled out after every tournament exit: “Jugamos como nunca, perdimos como siempre.” “We played like never – but we lost like always.”
It’s a sentiment that sums up the feelings of the English supporters at the end of Saturday night’s match in Marseille. They didn’t actually lose but it felt like they did, and the fact that Russia’s late equaliser thwarted them at the end of their best tournament performance for at least 12 years only makes the result more bitter.
In the first half, England had dominated and outclassed a woeful, injury-stricken Russia side that featured four players who were making their competitive debut. Yet inefficiency in front of goal meant they went in level at half-time, and they never again established quite the same level of control.
The pre-match talk had centred on how Roy Hodgson was going to arrange his wealth of attacking options, the availability of several in-form attackers having given him one of those selection headaches managers are supposed to love.
In the event, Hodgson settled the issue by dropping the player who plays for the smallest club. Leicester’s Jamie Vardy watched from the bench as Hodgson went with a 4-3-3 made up of players from Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United.
Wayne Rooney gave a mature sort of performance in midfield, completing 92 per cent of his passes in the first half and keeping the England machine ticking over. It was noticeable that Russia were giving him plenty of space in which to operate, and few of his passes were doing any real damage.
Closer to goal
On 13 minutes he hit a glorious crossfield pass to Harry Kane, and the England crowd sang his name, ignoring the fact that although the ball had travelled almost 50 yards, it hadn’t actually brought England any closer to goal.
England were most dangerous down the right, where Dele Alli, Kyle Walker and Adam Lallana put together some impressive combination play. Unfortunately for England, the chances kept falling to Lallana, who is the last player they would have wanted them to fall to. He put the first chance straight at the goalkeeper and dragged the second wide of the far post.
Unable to put together moves of any sophistication, Russia resorted to long balls towards the big striker Artem Dzyuba, but Eric Dier at the base of England’s midfield was expertly working the angles and cutting off the supply.
Just before half-time Russia’s fans roused themselves to exhort their team, perhaps sensing that half-time would be their last chance to regroup and gain a toehold in the game.
Sure enough, Russia began to apply more pressure to England’s build-up play, forcing Rooney and Alli into the sort of errors they hadn’t made in the first half.
Raheem Sterling was running into blind alleys and Harry Kane was labouring, and when Akinfeev stopped Rooney’s placed effort from the edge of the box with an inspired save, it was the sort of moment that gets players thinking “this isn’t our night”.
You wondered how Roy Hodgson was going to change things, but England’s manager showed either steely patience, or dithering indecision, depending on your prejudice. He still had not made a substitution by the 73rd minute, when England won a free-kick 25 yards out.
Harry Kane had taken all England’s attacking set-pieces with the exception of an earlier free-kick which Rooney had insisted on taking. This time Kane left the ball to Dier, who smashed a shot past the wall and into the net. The ball was not far from Igor Akinfeev but the power left the Russian goalkeeper helpless.
Hodgson decided he had the “luxury”, as he later put it, of taking off Rooney, whom he believed to be tired, but even though Russia were now forced to come forward in search of an equaliser, he resisted the temptation to unleash Vardy.
Last desperate ball
“We thought we could see the game out,” Hodgson said. It did look that way. The three minutes of injury time had almost expired by the time Russia slung one last desperate ball into the box.
Underneath it was the charging figure of the big centre-half Vasili Berezutsky, who crushed Danny Rose in the aerial challenge and sent a superb header looping over Joe Hart.
Within minutes the Russian fans were putting the seal on the night by chasing the English crowd out of the stadium. The Russian sports minister and FA chief Vitaly Mutko reprised John Delaney’s celebrations in Estonia, walking up beside the goal and saluting the Russian supporters even as they charged the English, many of whom were reduced to jumping over a fence in their rush to escape.
Both sides have been warned by Uefa that further misbehaviour by their fans could lead to an early exit from this tournament by disqualification. This result means that, for England, a second successive first-round tournament elimination cannot be discounted either.