England take second spot after frustration against Slovakia
Roy Hodgson's decision to make wholesale changes backfired as England wasted the chance to top their Euro 2016 group, with a goalless draw against Slovakia only enough to see them through as runners-up to Wales.
Days after being praised to the hilt for his match-winning decision to bring on Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy in Lens, the Three Lions boss made an error in judgement by making six alterations for Group B clash at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard.
England had not made so many changes at a European Championship finals since 1980 and the gamble, however calculated, did not pay off as Slovakia’s stern defence held firm to secure a 0-0 draw in St Etienne.
Wales usurped Hodgson’s men at the top of Group B as a result, meaning they now advance in second place and face a last-16 clash with the runners-up of Group F in Nice next Monday.
England therefore gave up the chance of facing a third-placed side at the Parc des Princes, just 34 miles from their Chantilly base, and makes their route to the final look more treacherous.
Hodgson’s selection will no doubt dominate the post-match conversation on a night when control was not enough to earn victory, with a lack of cutting edge once again proving an issue.
Jamie Vardy’s one-on-one was the best chance of the first half and Dele Alli’s effort off the line was the closest they came after on a night when the loud roar of England’s support could not see them over the line.
This was another frustrating trip to St Etienne, 18 years on from the World Cup penalty shoot-out exit to Argentina, and a bad time for their 100 per record against Slovakia to end.
The final whistle was met by a smattering of boos from the hearty travelling contingent that had cheered them on so vociferously, with England reducing their opponents to one rushed early effort in the first half.
Hodgson’s men were on top and after five minutes Vardy directed a cross from the impressive Nathaniel Clyne just over in unorthodox fashion, before Sturridge was denied from close range by Peter Pekarik’s pressure.
Adam Lallana dragged wide from the edge of the box as the pressure mounted, with the Liverpool attacking midfielder then sending over a deep cross that Jordan Henderson impressively controlled and hit on the turn.
That was one of many shots blocked by Slovakia’s well-organised defence, which Vardy looked well-placed to breach in the 17th minute when put through on goal.
The routine so successful at Leicester did not have the desired outcome, though, as while his pace was enough to leave Martin Skrtel behind his shot not good enough to beat goalkeeper Matus Kozacik.
The encounter became somewhat disjointed after a break in play following a nasty blow to Pekarik, with Ryan Bertrand’s flailing arm leading the Slovakia right-back’s white shirt to be covered in claret.
Gary Cahill, too, received treatment during the interlude as an existing hip complaint appeared to flare up, but the stand-in captain returned and soon slid in to intercept a threatening cross.
It was one of the few Slovakia voyages forward as the attention remained at the other end, with Kozacik denying a fierce Lallana snapshot.
Jan Durica knew little about the block that prevented Henderson’s shot causing an issue for his goalkeeper as half-time approached, with neither manager making an alteration when the teams re-emerged.
There was an audible gasp within the stadium within minutes of the restart after a defensive blunder threatened to gift Slovakia an undeserved lead.
Tomas Hubocan’s seemingly innocuous cross caused problems as Chris Smalling attempted to chest the ball back to Joe Hart. The lack of power saw Robert Mak jump in and the England’s centre-back and goalkeeper collide, with a collective sigh of relief when it came to nothing.
Vladimir Weiss cut inside and sent a low strike that Hart saved low to his right when Slovakia next attacked, but that came after Clyne forced a fine save from Kozacik under pressure.
Wayne Rooney and Alli were brought on in a bid to spark England into life, which the latter almost did just moments after his introduction. The Tottenham midfielder’s burst into the box at pace and stretched to meet a Henderson cross, with his strike destined for the goal until Skrtel flicked off the line.
It was one of increasingly few chances as play became congested, with Rooney seeing a shot from the edge of the box deflected over the bar as England fans made their voice heard.
Eric Dier saw a long-range strike charged down and Rooney struck wide as England became desperate.
Second-half introduction Harry Kane had several half-chances as England pushed for a winner that eluded them, with Alli lashing the last chance well over.