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A much-improved England regains some confidence against Slovenia


It was only 1-0, but that doesn't matter. There was anxiety towards the end, but only because England briefly became reinfected by "the fear" that Fabio Capello had identified as having undermined its performance in the opening two games. This was England back, if not at its best, then at least somewhere near the form of qualifying. For the second half of the first half and the first half of the second half, it was excellent, and on another day would have won far more comprehensively.

Even Capello had looked nervous before kickoff in Port Elizabeth, the usually pugnacious, thrusting jaw-line oddly pensive. But within minutes, he must have felt relieved. The passing was crisper, the running more purposeful and, crucially, in James Milner, England at last had somebody capable of crossing the ball. There was still a scratchiness, but once Jermain Defoe's goal had gone in, England was suddenly recognizable again as the side that had swept through qualifying with seven more goals than anybody else in the European section.

Little wonder Capello was buzzing by the end, his immediate postmatch interview barely audible above the noise of newly enthused England fans, and his excited delivery barely comprehensible even if it had been. In one of the less-quoted parts of his infamous press-conference on Sunday, John Terry had mentioned what an inspirational figure Capello could be when roused; here was evidence of the heart that beats beneath the stern exterior. "I wanted to see this team fight together, to see its spirit," he shouted. "I am really, really happy. We go forwards because the mind is free, without fear, without anything."

Stirring stuff, and readily understandable in the aftermath of a victory that at least spared Capello the embarrassment of being the first manager of England in 52 years to depart a World Cup after the group stage, but in the cold light of technical analysis, Capello will surely not be quite so sanguine. England played with a higher tempo than it had in the first two games, and the pressing was sharper, but there must still be concerns.

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Most notably, there is the issue of Wayne Rooney. There were flickers of the Rooney of four months ago -- a clever lay-back to Steven Gerrard when he drew Samir Handanovic into an excellent low save to his left, one shuffle-and-go to release Frank Lampard early in the second half and a couple of quickly-taken dead-balls that showed at least the brain is as cunning and alert as ever. But they were only flickers, and when Rooney was withdrawn with 20 minutes remaining with an ankle injury, the temptation was to wonder how long he has been suffering it. Reports from within the camp suggest also that he is feeling the pressure, that he has become quiet and withdrawn, wondering why so much attention is focused on his loss of form when he has been far from England's poorest player. That, though, is the wages of genius; with great talent comes great expectation.

Then there is Jermain Defoe. He scored the goal -- let's be generous and credit his run and the way he muscled in front of Marko Suler rather than focusing on the fact he smacked his finish straight at Handanovic with the outside of his right shin -- and he drew one other excellent save from the goalkeeper, but he does confine England to a straight 4-4-2. His movement on Wednesday was good, but the reason England found a measure of fluidity was less to do with him than with the way the two fullbacks linked with the forwards in front of them, and the fact that Frank Lampard seemed rather less inhibited than he had against Algeria (although the way he snatched at a chance when presented with a near-open goal in the first half suggested he is still not yet as at home in an England shirt as in a Chelsea one).

And then, looming bigger and darker than all the other worries, there is Terry himself, the Corialanus of Rustenburg. His mutiny never materialized, and in a perverse way it may be that he is to be praised for having brought into the open the players' various complaints and perhaps made them realize their triviality. Certainly his outburst on Sunday morning deflected criticism that might otherwise have been directed at Capello. But equally, he was left isolated and humiliated, and you'd have thought even somebody of Terry's limited self-awareness would have been stung by that.

But Terry, while not overly stretched, was excellent against Slovenia, bustling and bristling, courageous to the point of insanity. At one point he even threw himself headfirst in front of Mile Novakovic in an attempt to block his shot, arms tucked behind him so his face or chest would have taken any impact. This was Terry in his guise as Monty Python's Black Knight, impervious to pain, utterly devoted to the cause; and that, of course, is why, despite everything he remains so popular among Chelsea fans. As the old joke has it, nobody ever doubted Terry's commitment, except perhaps his wife. "He is a leader," Capello said, in what, given Terry's love of the term, was surely a conciliatory move. "I have no problem with the players. I respect the players and they respect me. It was a very important performance from Terry."

For Capello, Wednesday couldn't have gone much better. England is through, his team seem to have a little self-belief back, Terry is back in line and all talk of rebellion has evaporated. In the warm glow of victory, with the first part of the job done, Capello revealed that he had allowed the players a beer the night before the game -- perhaps a concession to the players' grievances at the rigor of his regime. The nature of the media beast is that it would take only another defeat to reawaken the complaints, but for now at least the possibility remains that Capello's counter-revolutionary surge will be seen as the turning point of England's World Cup. It might not have been England's best performance under Capello, but it was probably his best day.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.