Goalkeeper Robert Green suffered a World Cup nightmare as England were forced to settle for a disappointing draw in the opening game of their campaign against the United States.
Steven Gerrard gave coach Fabio Capello the perfect start to this South African mission when he slid Emile Heskey’s pass beyond Tim Howard after only four minutes.
And while England rarely hit the heights, they were maintaining their advantage in relative comfort until five minutes before half-time when West Ham United’s Green suffered the lapse that will haunt him.
Clint Dempsey offered an effort that was little more than pot luck from 25 yards, but Green hopelessly allowed the ball to squeeze through him and roll agonisingly over the line as he tried to recover.
England had opportunities to repair the damage, but Heskey once again illustrated his limitations in front of goal by shooting straight at Howard with only the keeper to beat.
Wayne Rooney, subdued for the most part, shot just wide, while substitute Shaun Wright-Phillips, on for the under-par Milner after only 30 minutes, saw his angled drive saved by Howard.
Capello will also have enjoyed finer nights in his illustrious career as his major decisions backfired. Green got the nod in goal but must now fear for his place against Algeria, while Milner looked far from fit following a virus after his surprise selection.
And Ledley King, whose fitness was the subject of so much debate when Capello named his squad, lasted only 45 minutes after suffering a groin injury.
It exposed a glaring lack of pace in England’s central defence, which was almost punished when Jozy Altidore raced past Jamie Carragher with embarrassing ease only for Green to apply some repairs to his shattered reputation by turning his shot on to the post.
England have plenty of time to regroup and progress, but this was an unsatisfactory night for Capello and his players.
Capello, unconvinced about David James’ fitness, chose Green ahead of the inexperienced Joe Hart – on the surface a sensible decision but ultimately a costly one.
England’s first-half performance was undistinguished, failing to build on Gerrard’s fourth minute goal.
Frank Lampard’s pass was out of Rooney’s reach, but Heskey played in Gerrard to score with the outside of his right foot.
The United States were allowed the luxury of plenty of possession, and England almost paid for their generosity when Landon Donovan’s inviting cross was headed tamely wide by Altidore.
Milner, given his chance despite being laid low by illness in midweek, was off the pace and picked up a booking for fouling Steve Cherundolo before being replaced by Wright-Phillips on the half-hour.
England at least looked like holding their lead until the interval, before a moment of complete calamity engulfed Green. Dempsey’s left-foot shot from 25 yards barely merited the label of speculative, but every aspect of Green’s technique collapsed as he allowed the ball to squirm through his grasp and over the line.
To add to England’s troubles, King failed to emerge after the break, being replaced by Carragher as Capello was forced into another change to his initial plans.
Heskey, having done so well to create Gerrard’s goal, then demonstrated his lack of confidence in front of goal when he wasted a clear chance to restore England’s lead after 52 minutes. Aaron Lennon put the striker through, but he never looked convincing and shot straight at Howard.
England, however, were not looking comfortable and Altidore illustrated the lack of pace at the back to give them a real scare in the 64th minute. He outpaced Carragher in comfort, but Green made some amends for his earlier mistake by turning his angled shot on to the post.
Rooney had been relatively quiet, but almost surprised Howard with a snapshot from long-range that flew just wide. He then set up Wright-Phillips, but his effort was too close to Howard.
England then ran out of ideas as they tired – leaving Bob Bradley’s US side to celebrate a hard-earned point.
Amiya Sinha is a Special Sports Correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz and is covering the FIFA 2010 to get you the latest scoop.
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