Wayne Rooney lifts England in Estonia
Roy Hodgson’s side struggle to break down 10-man opposition before striker’s free-kick
England’s Wayne Rooney (right) celebrates scoring the winner against Estonia with Leighton Baines in Tallinn. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
For a long time it had looked as though England might be about to rack up one of their least distinguished results of the Roy Hodgson era. Estonia had been reduced to 10 men early in the second half yet Hodgson’s players had to toil away for another 25 minutes before Wayne Rooney’s goal soothed any gathering nerves and maintained their immaculate start to this qualifying programme.
There was no doubt they fully deserved the win but it still felt like a return to reality after the brief surge of new confidence that had accompanied beating Switzerland in their opening game of Group E. Estonia are 81st in Fifa’s world rankings, sandwiched by Saudi Arabia and Antigua and Barbuda, and do not be misled by the statistic that has been churned out over the last few days about them losing only one of their previous nine home matches. The opposition on that run had included Azerbaijan, Gibraltar and Tajikistan. England were facing moderate opponents and it was a stodgy way of showing the gulf in quality.
They did, however, eventually manage it courtesy of Rooney’s 73rd-minute free-kick, beating the Estonian goalkeeper, Sergei Pareiko at his near post to take the England striker to within one more goal of emulating Jimmy Greaves’s total of 44 for the national team. Rooney is now five short of Gary Lineker’s 48, and six off equalling Bobby Charlton’s record, and Hodgson ought to be grateful to his captain on a night when England had lacked penetration in attack and there was the slightly strange sub-plot of Raheem Sterling being left out of the starting XI after informing his manager he was “a little tired”. Sterling had played only 45 minutes of the 5-0 win against San Marino and it seems unusual for a 19-year-old to be complaining of fatigue not even two weeks into October. He was introduced after 64 minutes and it was a foul on the Liverpool player, just outside the penalty area, that led to the game’s decisive moment.
Sterling might have had some fun from the start given the way England hogged the ball – the possession statistics showed it 82% in favour of Hodgson’s men after the opening half an hour – and they certainly missed his speed and directness during those long spells when they pinned back their opponents without being able to make the breakthrough.
His place had gone to Adam Lallana who was predominantly involved at the most forward point of Hodgson’s midfield diamond. Jack Wilshere started in the more withdrawn role, with Fabian Delph and Jordan Henderson providing energy alongside him, in the system that Hodgson first used to good effect during the 2-0 win in Basel. Wilshere was more emboldened here, however, to venture into attacking positions. The system lacked natural width but England’s full-backs, Calum Chambers and Leighton Baines, had the licence to go forward and, on the whole, there was a good structure to the team.
Yet England had to be patient. They were clearly the more refined team but, by half-time, Pareiko had hardly been overworked. Wilshere’s clipped through ball gave Rooney a chance that he took on the volley first-time, looking for the spectacular, only to flash the shot just over the crossbar. That apart, however, there were only a couple of other half chances when Estonia’s goal was genuinely threatened in that period and the odd moment or two when England looked vulnerable on the counterattack. With a touch more composure from the Estonian left-winger, Sergei Zenjov, they might also have been seriously embarrassed when he had the chance to fire in a shot inside the opening minute.
His effort went into the side-netting and England quickly took control of midfield. Wilshere and Henderson were outstanding in those moments, with Rooney and Danny Welbeck in front of them, but the home side defended stoutly and they also showed after Ragnar Klavan’s sending off that they were not simply going to fold because they were a man down.
Klavan had already been booked for a first-half foul on Welbeck and Estonia’s captain could hardly have expected any leniency from the Croatian referee, Marijo Strahonja, after stepping across Delph to block his run through the heart of the home side’s defence. Rooney curled the free-kick over the crossbar but, after that, Estonia were ripe to be beaten.
England certainly had enough of the ball in the opposition half to think they should have made lighter work of it. Again, though, Pareiko was well protected by his defence. Karol Mets had moved back from midfield to take Klavan’s position and it was tempting to wonder whether England’s night would be engulfed in frustration when Chambers picked out Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the six-yard area and the substitute could not get a clean contact on his header.
Instead, Rooney’s goal changed the entire complexion of the evening, clipping his shot over the wall and fortunate, perhaps, that Pareiko could only bundle it in at the post. There had barely been a flicker of danger at the other end during the second half and Rooney might have pulled level with Greaves if he had been able to beat Pareiko for a second time when he ran clear in the closing moments.