England and Ecuador both hinted at their strengths while emphasizing their weaknesses ahead of the World Cup as they played out an entertaining 2-2 draw in Miami.
A largely second-string England side were given a torrid time by a strong Ecuador lineup in the opening exchanges and went behind through Enner Valencia’s header inside the first 10 minutes. England grew into the match and a scrappy finish from Wayne Rooney and fine strike form Rickie Lambert either side of half-time put Roy Hodgson’s side in front.
But an end-to-end contest remained that way and substitute Michael Arroyo thundered in a superb equalizer with 20 minutes remaining to leave both coaches encouraged but with much to ponder before their campaigns begin in Brazil. Unfortunately the heated tempo unsavorily boiled over in the dying minutes when a reckless challenge from Raheem Sterling on Antonio Valencia drew an angry response from the Ecuador winger, leading to both being given an early trip back to the locker rooms. England will be hoping that the encounter won’t ultimately be marred by an late injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that brought fears of knee-ligament damage.
Together with Ross Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain showed the pace, quality and fearlessness of youth that could add another dimension to what has largely been a functional side under Hodgson. However, a second-choice defense, and James Milner and Chris Smalling, in particular, showed up England’s lack of depth in that department.
They were exposed repeatedly by an Ecuador team that displayed their potency on the break, especially going down the flanks. Any team that takes them lightly in Brazil could certainly be in for a rude surprise. Still, coach Reinaldo Rueda will know that his defense remains a significant Achilles heel.
In an effort to increase his sharpness, Rooney was the only player who retained his place from the England side that beat Peru 3-0 in their Wembley sendoff last week. But in a continued quest to find his best position in a 4-2-3-1, the Manchester United forward was deployed on the left wing. Rather than Rooney, it was Ecuador’s left-winger who made the bigger impression in the early stages.
Jefferson Montero was relishing going up against Milner, who struggled in an unfamiliar right-back role, though was hardly helped by all too often being left isolated. Eight minutes in, poor play from both Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain allowed Montero to find left-back Walter Ayovi who had space to whip in a superb cross that badly caught out Smalling and gave Valencia the chance to head powerfully past Ben Foster.
Ecuador continued to threaten in transition, with their tactic to get the ball out to Montero as often and quickly as possible working a treat. It took Foster to race from his line to prevent the 24-year-old from poking in to double his side’s lead. But, while England were struggling to get to grips with the game down the flanks or in the center of midfield, where Jack Wilshere looked short of match fitness in the opening half, there were signs that their forward players could prosper against a suspect Ecuador defense.
A delightful flick from Barkley got Rooney in behind, but his finish went past the far post. Along with Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain was also providing plenty of vitality. And it was the Arsenal midfielder’s fine cross that set up England’s equalizer just before the half-hour mark. England got fortunate with the cross striking the arm of Lambert, before his back heel came back off the post and Rooney bundled it over the line for his 39th international goal to go some way to silencing his critics.
Rooney and Oxlade-Chamberlain both went close before the break, before, six minutes into the second-half, came a goal that will give all England fans real cause for optimism. He may be far from the finished product and is unlikely to start against Italy in 10 days’ time, but Barkley has an ability to find space between the lines and run at opponents that precious few England players have possessed in recent years. The Everton midfielder showed exactly those attributes together with composure at the end of a fine run to perfectly set up Lambert and the new Liverpool signing finished emphatically with the outside of his right foot.
Lambert could have had another just a few minutes later, but this time he curled wide of the far post. Despite how exciting England were going forward at times in this contest, designed to provide a taste of the heat and humidity they’ll experience in Manaus, there remains a suspicion that when it comes to the real business of the World Cup Hodgson will revert to experience and more defensive solidity.
Certainly England cannot afford to be as open as they were here. Ecuador really should have been back on level terms when England’s defense was caught out once more and Enner Valencia scuffed a shot against the post from Joao Rojas’s pull-back. There was nothing suspect about the strike when they did make it 2-2. Arroyo had only just come onto the pitch when he took full advantage of the failure of Wilshere and Milner to close him down with an unstoppable drive into the top corner.
The match would end on a sour note, first when Oxlade-Chamberlain went off and then when Sterling’s stupidity and Valencia’s hot-headedness earned them both red cards, meaning they will miss their teams’ final friendlies before the World Cup.