Three quick thoughts following England's 1-0 win over Slovenia in Group C play on Wednesday:
1. England coach Fabio Capello earned his money today. The Italian is the highest paid coach at this World Cup, and came into the game under huge pressure from a nation, and players, unhappy with its first two performances. "This team has the smell of players being involved in the selection,"suggested former England boss Graham Taylor before kickoff, even though Capello had ignored John Terry's plea to include Joe Cole, and continued to pick captain Steven Gerrard in his less favored position in left midfield (as opposed to behind the center-forward). The two changes he did make combined for the decisive first goal: James Milner's superb cross from the right volleyed in by Jermain Defoe, who Capello almost picked to start against Algeria. The combination, strangely, vindicated those both in the pro- and anti-Capello camps. Capello has won major honors using different formations at AC Milan (4-4-2, then 4-1-4-1), Roma (3-4-1-2), Juventus (4-4-2) and Real Madrid (4-2-3-1), yet despite all the pre-match talk of new tactical systems, he stuck with the 4-4-2 and told his players to get on with it. For the first time since arriving in South Africa, they did just that.
2. England has a new hero, and his name is James Milner. Milner clearly had not recovered from his three-day virus when he was subbed off after 30 minutes against USA. In this game, his performance was outstanding. "He is the future, my future," Capello said of Milner 18 months ago, before he had even played for England, and now you can see why. It was his cross that set up Defoe's goal, which not only changed the game but converted England's tense and fearful start into one of confidence. He also tracked back to help Glen Johnson, made clever runs and angles for Wayne Rooney, and, crucially, helped the team keep its balance and discipline. "He is intelligent on the pitch," Capello added, a pointed comment when you consider Theo Walcott was left out of the squad, reportedly, for not obeying the coach's tactical orders in pre-tournament friendlies. Milner put in more crosses in the first half than Aaron Lennon had managed in the previous two matches. While Defoe will deservedly take the credit for the goal, and Rooney and Frank Lampard struggle to break their scoring droughts in South Africa, keep an eye on Milner. He is 24 and don't be surprised if he's captaining England at the 2014 World Cup.
3. The Balkan nations know how to produce players. They may not have the budgets or facilities of their counterparts in western Europe, but the six former Yugoslav republics certainly know how to develop decent players. Slovenia has the smallest population of all teams at this World Cup, and yet thanks to a talented team and an organized coach, has topped Group C for two rounds. Only the USA's impossibly late goal against Algeria knocked it out in the end. While Slovenia's first World Cup team in 2000 learned to play in Yugoslavia, everyone in this side is a product of the Slovene youth system (with the exception of Bostjan Cesar, who joined Dinamo Zagreb at 16). A new Slovene generation is already on its way, with a clutch of Under-21 players, led by Inter Milan's Rene Krhin (part of Slovenia's World Cup squad), currently on the books of Italian clubs.