Football: Lampard spares England blushes

England U-21 1 Bulgaria U-21 0
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S SHORT unbeaten run in the European Under 21's championship was maintained at Upton Park last night, but if their seniors are set as much work to do at Wembley today they should be prepared for a testing struggle.

England had the comparative international luxury of being able to field a virtually unchanged team from that which had beaten Sweden 2-0 last month, and almost immediately that, admittedly modest, period of practice together this season appeared to be beneficial. Twice they heavily reinforced their attack in which Emile Heskey's power and Matt Jansen's quick eye for space were valuable. And twice Bulgaria conceded corners in a way that suggested that they were uncomfortable against speed.

That speed allowed Frank Lampard to raise some home club enthusiasm on a night when a ground only a third full again questioned the wisdom of playing such matches in the big football-sated cities. Nevertheless, Lampard twice coloured the early evening with vivid thrusts out of midfield, deep into the Bulgarian defence. He finished the first slamming a shot into the side netting after Michael Ball had purposefully and enterprisingly taken it down the left side and centred well into Lampard's long stride.

By finding time to organise the England midfield and still having some left to counter attack, Lampard proved to be the versatile action man of the side. And on a pitch that became increasingly damp and slick, Bulgaria rarely looked anything more than a side lacking penetration and anyone capable of getting to grips with the game in front of a hesitant defence.

That slippery surface almost brought them to grief when in the 31st minute Lee Hendrie's searching low shot had Gospodinov desperately turning round to retrieve the ball after it initially passed through his hands. Jansen worried him even more, clouting the foot of the post from 25 yards. That Bulgaria survived seemed only a suspension of the inevitable.

All England were troubled by was the possibility that Martcho Davtchev's occasional touches of imagination might cause a damaging break. Ilan Stoianov attempted one shortly before half-time but it withered and three minutes after the break Jansen again wrung his hands in frustration as, after a neat turn in the penalty area, he shot accurately enough but not sufficiently strongly, allowing Gospodinov to dive along the goalline and steer the ball round the post.

When England did finally get the goal they deserved it came unsatisfactorily, Jansen, ever lively, slipped a pass forward. Heskey followed it into the penalty area but the ball was not truly under his control as the goalkeeper threw himself at the centre forward's feet, bringing him down. Even so, the referee had no choice but to give the penalty which Lampard confidently put away.

Despite the advantage that came just after the hour, England's tactical superiority was not entirely beyond Bulgaria's reach. Indeed, but for a positive intervention by Matthew Upson, England would have forfeited their lead. Dimiter Telkuski had brightly worked his way into the penalty area, and when Richard Wright seemed reluctant to meet the danger, Upson quickly cut between him and the Bulgarian, crucially easing the problem.

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Wright (Ipswich Town); Brown (Man Utd) Curtis (Man Utd) Upson (Arsenal) Carragher (Liverpool), Ball (Everton); Dyer (Ipswich Town), Lampard (West Ham) Hendrie (Aston Villa); Heskey (Leicester City) Jansen (Crystal Palace).Substitutes: Mills (Charlton Athletic) for Dyer 63 mins; Euell (Wimbledon) for Heskey 90; Morris (Chelsea) for Jensen 75.

BULGARIA (3-5-2): Gospodinov; Sirakov, Raitchev, Velikov; Petrov, Davtchev, Tchomakov, Telkuski, Stoianov; Sakaliev, Iovov. Substitutes: Shopov for Tchomakov 73; Dimitrov for Davtchev 78; Milenov for Telkuski 56.

REFEREE: D van Egmond (Holland).