Wednesday, August 14, 2013

England 3 Scotland 2

Lambert celebrates after scoring the winner with his first touch on his debut.

What: England vs. Scotland, international friendly

Where: Wembley Stadium, London, England

When: August 14 2013

Maybe Rickie Lambert was the answer all along. Maybe when Fabio Capello was looking for goals – or Steve McClaren and Sven-Goran Eriksson before him – they should have turned to the Liverpool native who was plying his trade in the lower divisions for the likes of Macclesfield Town, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers.

Okay, I’m kidding here. Besides getting any of the above-mentioned managers fired, selecting Lambert to a major tournament while he was playing in League Two probably wouldn’t have gone over too well for Lambert, either. It’s one thing to score a couple of goals against Rushden & Diamonds. It’s quite another to grab one against Portugal when the fate of a nation lies on the outcome.

But after Wednesday, one thing is undeniable. At age 31, Rickie Lambert, the man who a year ago had never played a minute in the Premier League, scored the winner for England in an international match. Against Scotland. At Wembley. On his debut. With his FIRST TOUCH.

Many people will no doubt start to wonder after this performance whether Lambert should deserve a place in the England squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Moldova and Ukraine next month. I’m not particularly interested in that debate. Lambert’s form for Southampton will go a lot further toward deciding his future for England than 22 minutes in an August friendly against Scotland.

I’d rather just focus on how awesome today had to be for Lambert and his family. Lambert waited 31 years for the chance to pull on an England shirt, and he started his international career in the best possible way, scoring the decisive goal in an entertaining 3-2 England win. Even if Lambert never plays another game for England, he’ll be able to tell his grandchildren that he scored the winner on his debut against England’s oldest rival. That’s pretty cool.

Lambert was the obvious story – he should have had a second when he hit Wilfried Zaha’s beautiful stoppage-time cross onto the left post – but there was plenty to talk about after a match that England won after falling behind twice. The young trio of Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Theo Walcott looked effective playing together on the right side, using one-twos to advance the ball into dangerous positions. Those three may prove critical for England down the road as Walcott, at 24, is the oldest of the group. Cleverley turned 24 on Monday and Wilshere is just 21.

After West Brom’s James Morrison put Scotland ahead early, Cleverley played a great through ball to Walcott to spring him into the Scottish penalty area. Though his first touch wasn’t great, Walcott recovered and calmly slotted past keeper Allan McGregor at the near post to bring the two sides level. Just two minutes later, the two youngsters connected again, with Walcott finding Cleverley this time in the box. Though Cleverley mishit his shot, it still gave McGregor problems.

The two sides were even for most of the first half and went to the dressing room level at 1-1. However, just three minutes after the break, Scotland were on top again after veteran Kenny Miller used a nice fake to fool Gary Cahill before turning and firing a left-footed shot past the outstretched arm of Joe Hart. Even at 33, Miller – now with the MLS’s Vancouver Whitecaps – still knows how to find the back of the net.

England responded quickly this time, as Russell Martin was caught out on a Steven Gerrard free kick for the second time in two minutes. The first was saved by McGregor after skimming off the top of Martin’s head, but on the second attempt Gerrard found the head of Danny Welbeck, who rose above Martin to put England level once again. From there it was all England, and the Three Lions’ pressure and aerial superiority paid off in the 70th minute when Lambert netted with a textbook power header off Leighton Baines’ corner.

Lambert had replaced Wayne Rooney just three minutes earlier after another uneven England performance by the Manchester United striker. Out of action in United’s Community Shield win over Wigan on Sunday (and rumored to be on the move to Chelsea), Rooney lost possession with the ball and did little to improve England’s chances. Little does not mean nothing, though, as Rooney was wrongly ruled offside just before halftime following a brilliant ball over the top by Gerrard. If play had been allowed to continue, there’s a good chance Rooney would have found himself on the scoresheet, as he was right through on goal.

England can take some positives from this performance – they looked confident going forward and scored three times – but Hart (who probably should have saved the first goal, even if it was raining and the ball dipped on him at the last second) and the defense looked shaky enough to remind Roy Hodgson’s men that they must be at the top of their games if they want to secure that all-important automatic berth to Brazil. Though England controls its own destiny in Group H and plays three of its remaining four qualifiers at home, tricky matches against Ukraine, group-leading Montenegro and Poland – all draws the first time around – remain. A win against Scotland is nice, but the real work is about to begin for the Three Lions.

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