An inspiring performance by Steven Gerrard helped England avoid disaster against a stubborn Hungary side at Wembley Stadium. A goal down with a little over twenty minutes left, England's captain scored twice in two minutes to give the home side a 2-1 victory, perhaps restoring some much-needed confidence to the England camp.
Although manager Fabio Capello had promised to ring in the changes with a new-look England side, the old warhorses were all rolled out on parade again. The starting lineup featured the usual suspects: Chelsea trio Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, and John Terry all assumed their usual positions, while Gareth Barry was slotted in as the holding midfielder and Liverpool pair Gerrard and Glen Johnson were played in the centre and at right back respectively. It was at the wings where newer players were fielded, Manchester City's Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott flanking the more experienced players in the middle. Wayne Rooney acted as a lone striker while Phil Jagielka paired with Terry in the back.
The team come out to (mostly) cheers lined up in a 4-2-3-1, a welcome switch after England had spent the World Cup in 4-4-2, the antiquated formation taking a big share of the blame for England's poor expedition to South Africa. The change appeared to have paid off immediately for Capello as England dominated the opening proceedings, Hungary, playing in a festive red and green uniform, barely getting a touch for the first fifteen minutes of the game. Several corners were the immediate payoff for England, with Adam Johnson looking particularly lively on the left. Just three minutes after kickoff the ball was in the Magyar net, only for Rooney's goal to be correctly ruled out for offside, the United striker straying a yard past the last defender before Gerrard's pass slipped him clean through.
It was Theo Walcott at wide right, however, who was the author of England's first major chance. Skillfully slipped into the penalty area by Glen Johnson, Walcott made a beeline for the goal before sliding the ball to Adam Johnson, unmarked in the middle. The City player had time to take a pass and shoot, but opted instead to blast the ball first time, leaning back as he skied the ball into the groaning Wembley crowd.
England remained on the attack for much of the rest of the half, but slowly Hungary started to assert themselves. Rudolf in particular causing problems for the Terry-Jagielka partnership. Twenty minutes in, and Rudolf had drawn Terry too far upfield, expertly slipping past the Chelsea defender and chasing after a through ball only for his footing to fail him and ending up sprawled in the Wembley turf, a relieved Joe Hart retrieving the ball. England had been warned, and the the game slowly became far finely balanced. While Hungary did not look to pose much goalscoring threat, their forays into the England half served to disrupt Capello's team and seem to fluster Gareth Barry in particular, breaking the vital link between defence and attack for the home side.
For the last 15 minutes before half time, England started slipping back into their World Cup habits. Rooney in particular was becoming visibly frustrated with the lack of service, at one point grabbing a defender's face in disgust after failing to find space during an England corner. Lampard and Gerrard were working hard in midfield to shuttle the ball to the wings, but Theo Walcott failed to do much with the football once in possession while Adam Johnson's delivery was poor from both corners and open play. When the whistle came, England were booed off the pitch, and they probably deserved it.
Four players were withdrawn at half time, including the entire Chelsea contingent. Kieran Gibbs, Michael Dawson, Bobby Zamora, and Ashley Young on for Cole, Terry, Lampard, and Walcott. England switched to a 4-4-2 in order to accommodate the extra striker in Zamora. For a short while it looked like the switch would pay off, but before long England were relying on long balls to Zamora from Dawson and Jagielka. It was after an overhit pass to Ashley Young on the left that disaster struck.
Gareth Barry did not read the possession switch fast enough, and left the defenders exposed as Hungary raced up the pitch. Dawson had an opportunity to intercept a probing pass, but his lunge missed, allowing Vladimir Koman the chance to pick the ball up deep inside England territory. His square ball across the goal found Phil Jagielka, who deflected it past Joe Hart, and towards the goal, where a jumping kick from Dawson was seemingly too late. The goal was given, but replays showed that the ball definitely had not touched the line, Dawson's error atoned for with an excellent goal saving clearance. 'Real' goal or not, England found themselves in a 1-0 hole and were showing little sign of being able to do anything about it.
More changes were afoot. James Milner took the place of the subdued Wayne Rooney, and with it England went back to a 4-2-3-1 with Zamora at the point. Instantly change allowed the left side freedom to operate, Ashley Young and Kieran Gibbs linking superbly down the flank time and time again to carve up the Magyar defence. It was Gibbs wandering inside who set up the equaliser, the Arsenal youngster laying the ball back into space for an onrushing Steven Gerrard, who absolutely crashed the ball home, the swerving strike from 25 yards bending around the fingertips of Gabor Kiraly and into the top corner. Wembley's crowds, who'd been booing ever-more lustily as the game went on, were shocked into a second of silence before bursting into elated cheers.
Even better was to come. It was Ashley Young who was the giver this time, drifting easily past a pair of defenders before rolling the ball into a seemingly impossible position for the captain in the middle of the box. Gerrard jinked, spun, and was suddenly free of the trio of attendant defenders, and as Kiraly sprung off his line to collect the Liverpool talisman lifted the ball gently over him and into the back of the net for a superbly taken second goal. "God Save the Queen", sang Wembley in response.
England were playing far freer now, and Bobby Zamora was next to have a go, slamming an exquisite strike goalwards only to be denied by the thinnest of margins as Kiraly tipped the ball over. It was Zamora again who had a chance from a corner, only to head straight at the keeper from a tight angle. Meanwhile Hungary looked lost, but a one goal margin is never safe. A mistake by Phil Jagielka saw Zoltan Gera glide past him, collect the ball, and race towards the goal, Joe Hart coming off his line to challenge. The Fulham striker blinked first, sending a shot that bounced off Hart's chest and back into play, cleared by a thankful Michael Dawson.
If Hungary thought that their chance to equalise would give them momentum, they were wrong. Adam Johnson crafted an immediate reply with a vicious hit that buzzed the bar on the way over, and Zamora (again!) nearly converted from a corner. Two minutes of injury time came to nothing for the Hungarian attack, and cheers of appreciation rang out across the stadium after the whistle sounded England's first victory of the new era. Capello, who had barely moved all game, looked relieved on the touchline. His squad had not been impressive, especially in the first half, and the victory was far too close against a supposedly well-inferior side, one who hadn't beaten England for almost fifty years. Tougher questions will surely be asked, but Fabio Capello and England will surely take the win today and ask about the future tomorrow.