Football: Owen record strike lights up England

Morocco 0 England 1
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The Independent Online
HAVING been jeered by their own supporters on Saturday, England were cheered off by those of their opponents last night as they gained an ultimately comfortable victory. The result caused uproar here with the home side being whistled off the pitch under a hail of bottles as bonfires were lit on the terracing. In the England dressing-room though, the only warmth was a glow of satisfaction.

It was not, in truth, a distinguished or even accomplished performance but, after a dismal first half, England notably improved, winning through a 58th-minute goal by Michael Owen. It made him the youngest goalscorer for England this century.

England's day had started well with Paul Ince declared fit to captain the side after shaking off his ankle injury. He led a side showing nine changes from the one which drew with Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The survivors were Gareth Southgate, now at centre-half, and Darren Anderton, who was given a second start on the right flank. Paul Gascoigne and Steve McManaman were given playmaking responsibilities inside him with Ince in the holding role. In attack, Ian Wright made his first start since Rome as he formed a new pairing with Dion Dublin.

The partnership was not to manage a shot in anger. After 10 minutes, Wright went down in the box holding his left leg and, after 26, gave up the struggle with injury. The problem appeared to be the same calf which troubled him towards the end of the domestic season.

Wright was still making his way to the dressing-room, with his leg heavily strapped, when England looked as if they had lost another striker. Owen, chasing a long ball, clattered into the Moroccan goalkeeper, Driss Benzekri. He lay still for several minutes as the England medical staff and a concerned Glenn Hoddle gathered around him. Fortunately, he was soon able to resume play.

There had been little such drama in the football. Morocco, roared on by a capacity crowd in the Mohammed V Stadium, had signalled their ambitions with a rising shot from right-back Abdelilah Saber in the second minute and it was soon evident that they were a competent and composed side.

This was partly due to the contrast between their mastery of the ball and pitch compared to England's. Having been sporadically sloppy against the Saudis, England made a habit of it yesterday with Paul Gascoigne the leading culprit. The Middlesbrough midfielder had an awful half, giving the ball away and being caught in possession. One free-kick in a dangerous position, which rolled straight at a defender, summed up the ineptness of his display.

McManaman was little better and the forwards were given precious little opportunity to put Benzekri under pressure. But while Morocco, with largely European-based team, had the bulk of possession England's defence were able to keep them at bay well enough - a fact that Tim Flowers, needing to prove his fitness, may not have been entirely delighted about.

Not that the defending was unblemished, Gareth Southgate and Martin Keown both made the sort of tackles from behind which could lead to a red card in the World Cup. As it was, Keown received a yellow.

Both teams re-emerged after the break with a more positive intent. England were first to press, Dublin heading close at the far post from Graeme Le Saux's cross then Owen looking hopefully for a penalty after falling in the box under a challenge from Youssef Rossi.

Morocco responded with a 25-yard shot from Said Chiba, which gave Flowers his first exercise of the match, and another from Rachid Roki which dipped just over the bar.

Keown made a good interception after an Ince error but, just as it seemed England would pay for their laxity, they scored. The goal came from a Moroccan corner which was headed clear by first Ince, then Campbell. The ball came to McManaman who carried it upfield before, having benefited from a lucky bounce, played an intelligent and accurate ball for Owen. His flick took him past the last defender and the young Liverpool forward scored with the nonchalance to which Premiership spectators have already become accustomed.

England then settled for a policy of containment, while seeking to hit on the break. It worked to the extent that Les Ferdinand twice created chances for Gascoigne to celebrate his 31st birthday with a goal Neither was taken but, with Flowers saving well from Ali El Khattabi, England held on to win.

MOROCCO (4-4-2): Benzekri (RS Settat); Saber (Sporting Lisbon), Rossi (Rennes), Neqrouz (Bari), El Hadrioui (Benfica); Chiba (Compostela), El Khalej (Benfica), Chipo (Porto), Ouakili (Munich 1960), Bassir (Deportivo La Coruna), Roki (Raja Casablanca). Substitutes: El Khattabi (Heerenveen) for Roki, 63; Amzine (Mulhouse) for Chiba, 63; Reda (Raja Casablanca) for Ouakili, 73; Sellami (Raja Casablanca) for Chipo, 76.

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Flowers (Blackburn Rovers); Keown (Arsenal), Southgate (Aston Villa), Campbell (Tottenham); Anderton (Tottenham), Gascoigne (Middlesbrough), Ince (Liverpool), McManaman (Liverpool),

Le Saux (Chelsea); Wright (Arsenal), Dublin (Coventry). Substitutes: Owen (Liverpool) for Wright, 26; Ferdinand (Tottenham) for Dublin, 76.

Referee: M Ghani (Tunisia).

l England will definitely face competition from South Africa to host the 2006 World Cup, after the country's government yesterday agreed to back a bid to take the finals to Africa for the first time.