England are finally up and running in this FIFA World Cup™ after booking their place in the Round of 16 with a 1-0 win over Slovenia in Port Elizabeth.
Fabio Capello's men had entered the match third in Group C after draws with USA and Algeria but they ended the day second, following a victory secured by Jermain Defoe's first-half volley. Slovenia, by contrast, suffered heartbreak as they slipped from first place to nowhere, as Landon Donovan's late goal for USA in Pretoria condemned them to elimination.
England's campaign up to this point had been played out against a backdrop of negative headlines but not for the first time at the FIFA World Cup, they delivered a result when it mattered in their final group game. They may have been wearing an unfamiliar all-red kit but Capello's men looked much more like themselves than in their previous two outings.
With a cool breeze blowing in off the Indian Ocean, they stirred to life in a Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium awash with the white and red of England. After 14 minutes Frank Lampard tested Samir Handanovic with a long-range free-kick and their desire to make things happen appeared evident when central defender Matthew Upson – in for the suspended Jamie Carragher – won a tackle outside the Slovenia box, allowing Wayne Rooney to get in a shot that was deflected behind.
As the game took shape, Slovenia showed the self-belief that had brought them four points already. James had already saved one early drive by Valter Birsa when Ashley Cole's misdirected clearance set Zlatan Ljubijankic on a run down the right, halted only by a fine John Terry tackle. When the ensuing corner was only half-cleared, Milivoje Novakovic drove in a shot that Bostjan Cesar flicked goalwards but without the pace to trouble James.
In the 23rd minute England got their goal. James Milner, restored to the team in the place of Aaron Lennon, swung in a ball from the right and Defoe got there ahead of Marko Suler to fire in a volley that found the roof of the net via the palms of Samir Handanovic. Coincidentally, it was his first England goal since he scored in a 2-1 friendly win against Slovenia last September.
Suddenly, England's confidence came flooding back and they had chances to add to their advantage. Another Milner cross unnerved Slovenia's defence, Handanovic's attempted clearance only reaching Lampard who fired over. On the half-hour, Defoe drew a fingertip save from Handanovic, who then needed two attempts to keep out Steven Gerrard's low shot, after Rooney had teed up his captain.
England continued to set the pace entering the second half. When Gerrard headed a half-cleared corner back into the six-yard box, Defoe hooked wide of an inviting net. The Tottenham Hotspur striker then converted a Rooney cross but the offside flag was raised.
If Rooney had had to apologise to England’s supporters for his angry words into a TV camera in response to boos that accompanied the team off the pitch against Algeria, now they were chanting his name. Yet he should really have given them a second goal to celebrate in the 58th minute when Terry's pass put him in the clear. However, Handanovic, who had only just kept out a Terry header moments before, reacted well once more to tip his shot on to the post.
Slovenia had barely troubled England's defence but they provided a scare after 68 minutes when Novakovic and substitute Zlatko Dedic both got in shots, blocked by Terry and Glen Johnson, before Birsa dragged a third attempt past the post. Matjaz Kek's men came close again in the dying moments only for Upson to deny Tim Matavz with a last-ditch challenge, and the USA's late winner up in Pretoria sealed their unhappy fate. For England, by contrast, the show goes on.