Paul Hayward at the Millennium Stadium
An arena synonymous with thunderous Six Nations combat was the stage for a mismatch as Wales achieved something few international teams have managed in recent months: they made England look like masters of their fate.
Fabio Capello's side left a hostile Cardiff with a 2-0 victory – they now have three wins from four in Euro 2012 qualifying Group G – and fresh eulogies for the 19-year-old Jack Wilshere, their new playmaker, who drew this compliment from the England manager: "He is like a player who's 28 or 29 years old and has 40 caps."
This had the feel of a Premier League side outclassing a team from the Championship, but the English gains were many. The way the group is shaping up, the trip to Montenegro on 7 October will settle the leadership issue: always a big deal for a captaincy-obsessed nation. John Terry recovered the armband without fuss but Capello has still to find a suitable room in which to pacify Rio Ferdinand.
The chief gain from this one-sided contest was a greater range of tactical options for Capello, who used a weak Welsh side as a kind of blackboard. More experimentation is expected for Tuesday's Wembley friendly against Ghana with Capello saying he may make as many as 11 changes. Ashley Young, the Aston Villa winger apparently bound for a top-four Premier League club, left Wales as England's probable first-choice winger, and Wilshere, the country's best young midfielder, is no longer trapped in a defensive guard-dog role.
A penalty by Frank Lampard and Darren Bent's third goal in three internationals steadied another politics-ridden campaign. Lampard escaped the chop, Wilshere was freed from the holding role to display his rich talent in a more creative position and Wayne Rooney picked up a booking that will extend his summer holiday courtesy of a suspension for the Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland in June.
After a week in which the captaincy assumed a morbid hold on the English psyche – and Lampard looked likely to be dropped in favour of Scott Parker – Capello deployed a fluid system that returned Rooney to the left side of midfield and used Parker to grant Wilshere more attacking scope.
"I decided, after watching games Wales have played, for Parker and two midfielders." Capello said. "I decided for a new position for Rooney and Ashley Young. When we are defending they stay wide, when we have the ball Wayne comes in and it was a problem for Wales. This formation is really good because some players like Ashley Young are improving a lot."
None as fast as Wilshere, who made his England debut against Hungary in August, started in Copenhagen and is now a guaranteed pick, with two fine Champions League performances against Barcelona to sustain the hype. For him this was a bruising afternoon as Welsh boots snapped at his ankles.
England played 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3, with Young excelling, Bent showing he can score regularly at this level, Parker looking assured against weak opposition and Wilshere exciting, as ever. This match will not linger in the memory but England were at least eager, organised and assured.
Only five of Wales's starting XI were Premier League registered — and one, Manchester City's Craig Bellamy, is on loan to Cardiff. Five were Championship players with Nottingham Forest (Chris Gunter), Norwich (Andrew Crofts), Swansea (Ashley Williams), Millwall (Steve Morison) and Leicester (Andy King). The 11th, Joe Ledley, is at Celtic.
This talent chasm was readily apparent as Wales were incarcerated in their own half as Aaron Ramsey, the youngest Wales captain in 135 years, at 20 years and 90 days, endeavoured to be the Welsh Wilshere. Ramsey, a sparkling talent, has much in common with his fellow Arsenal pup, but was too soon into his comeback from serious injury to be able to dominate a robust England midfield.
With Gareth Bale, Ramsey offers a talent base for Wales to build from, but the haste with which some absent fans condemned the new manager, Gary Speed, for a dire first-half performance suggests the real problem has not been recognised: a shortage of Premier League-calibre manpower, and an excess of passengers at this level.
After the break, when England eased off, Wales passed more fluently. But this was a rotten advert for the Home Internationals, which should be left in aspic, and not because England are too good to bother with their neighbours. These games serve no educational purpose and are rarely entertaining. They offer only a distillation of everything we already know about British football.
The feuding was good, though. The UN have intervened on flimsier grounds than those offered by Ashley Cole and Bellamy as they jabbered and jabbed their way through the first half-hour, until Bellamy, regrettably, switched flanks.
By then Lampard had scored from the penalty spot after James Collins had tripped Young, his Aston Villa team-mate, on six minutes, and Bent had swept in a Young cross nine minutes later to suggest a landslide might be coming. Wales froze. Their supporters passed the time by baiting the English. Not a word of God Save the Queen had been heard above local booing, which confirmed the futility of playing anthems should the Home Internationals ever lurch from their museum.
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Paul Hayward at the Millennium Stadium