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Merseysiders send England to Brazil, racial controversy ensues

England advanced to the 2014 World Cup (to be played in Brazil) by defeating Poland 2-0 on Tuesday. Both goals were made on Merseyside.

Wayne Rooney — Liverpool born, Everton bred — scored the first. No surprise there. He has averaged about a goal per game that he’s been healthy enough to play in during World Cup qualification.

The way Rooney scored was a little surprising though. The goal came on a header from a perfect cross off the left foot of Everton’s Leighton Baines.

England clinched the victory as time was running out on a goal by another scouser, Liverpool (and England) captain Steve Gerrard.

Apart from Rooney, though, 22-year old Andros Townsend (a Londoner) was the biggest hero in England’s two must-win games (the other was a 4-1 win over Montenegro last week). Townsend plays for Tottenham Hotspur, but has spent almost his entire playing career on loan to much lesser clubs — 9 of them.

Three months ago, the thought that Townsend might play for the senior England team in crunch World Cup qualifiers was laughable. Townsend wasn’t even considered a top winger prospect for the national team. Focus, instead, was on the likes of Rahim Sterling, Thomas Ince, and Wilfried Zaha — younger players who had accomplished more.

But an injury to Aaron Lennon gave Townsend a chance to start for Tottenham. And an injury to Arsenal’s Theo Wolcott, coupled with Townsend’s brilliant play for Spurs, induced Roy Hodgson, England’s cautious manager to call on Townsend.

Townsend was rampant on the right side in both matches. He was at the heart of most of England’s best moves. And because Poland adjusted its defense to account for Townsend, Baines consistently had acres of space on the left from which to produced crosses like the one that led to Rooney’s goal.

As thoughts turn to World Cup play, the question is whether England will stick with the open, flowing, high-tempo game that brought victory over Montenegro and Poland, or will revert instead to its typical cautious, plodding, physical approach? Poland and Montenegro aren’t world beaters, but two of the three teams England eventually will be grouped with in Brazil are likely to be comparable in quality (imagine Switzerland and Costa Rica, for example).

Thus, there’s no reason to abandon the recently adopted style during the Group Stage. And if England advances to play, say, Germany or Italy (who eliminated England in the last two big tournaments), why not roll the dice and try to take the game to the opposition for a change?

Moreover, the current style happens to suit England’s personnel. Other than Rooney, who orchestrates things, the best attacking players right now are all speed merchants — Townsend, Walcott, Daniel Sturridge, and Danny Welbeck. But we’ll have to see who is healthy and in form as June 2014 approaches.

England wouldn’t be England if its qualification for the World Cup wasn’t accompanied by a faux scandal involving race. It seems that during his halftime talk, Hodgson told the following old joke, apparently by way of encouraging Chris Smalling, a black who was playing out of position at right back, to pass the ball more to Townsend, who is also black:

NASA decided they’d finally send a man up in a capsule after sending only monkeys in the earlier missions.

They fire the man and the monkey into space.

The intercom crackles, ‘Monkey, fire the retros.’

A little later, ‘Monkey, check the solid fuel supply.’

Later still, ‘Monkey, check the life support systems for the man.’

The astronaut takes umbrage and radioes NASA, ‘When do I get to do something?’

NASA replies, ‘In 15 minutes – feed the monkey.’

An unnamed player is said to have been offended by what he allegedly thought were the racial connotations of the joke. But Townsend immediately tweeted: “I don’t know what all this fuss is about. No offence was meant and none was taken! It’s not even news worthy!”

Indeed. But leave it to the speech police to try to tarnish a fine victory for England and a great evening for Townsend by drumming up a racial controversy.

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