St George duly slew the dragon in Manchester yesterday in an even more one-sided contest than the original. Desperate to give their manager Mark Hughes a famous send-off this week, Wales huffed and puffed but had their fire quelled by a goal after four minutes and without Robbie Savage in midfield could not find sufficient reserves of it to cause significant scorchmarks. David Beckham curled in a trademark second goal near the end before a rash tackle earned a yellow card that will keep him out of the next game, in Azerbaijan on Wednesday, though he would have missed it anyway because of a fractured rib.
England will go to Baku in a strong position in Group Six, but Welsh prospects of qualifying for a first tournament since 1958 look bleak again after nine competitive games without a victory. Even waving Hughes off by beating Poland in Cardiff on Wednesday would help the English cause. Not unexpectedly, the visiting defence had difficulty coping with the new attacking triumvirate of Michael Owen, Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney, all the more so once Andy Melville was injured warming up, forcing a late change. Mark Delaney, moved into the centre, looked uncomfortable throughout against the pace and movement of Owen and Defoe, with Rooney supplying them from behind and looking for every opportunity to shoot as well.
Craig Bellamy and Ryan Giggs, playing wide in a five-man midfield, were unable to supply the service required by John Hartson, who had an unenviable task against the reunited partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell, in their first game together since the Euro 2004 qualifier at home to Turkey 18 months ago. For whatever reason - principally the early goal, perhaps - yesterday's occasion never approached the tension of that night in Sunderland and Sven Goran Eriksson, though he was too polite to say so, must have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it all was.
"We said at half-time we needed a second goal," he said. "It was an important goal, because at 1-0 you're never calm." Eriksson would not confirm whether he will persevere with his new attacking formation; the decision may come down to whether there is sufficient midfield solidity behind the attacking trio. England are strong enough going forward to go on and dominate this group, which Hughes now hopes they do, opening up the possibility of Wales coming back into contention for a play-off place. "We were just a bit short today," the Welsh manager admitted. "We needed more possession and constructive play and Robbie [Savage] would have driven us on."
If forewarned is forearmed, Hughes had abundant time to plan his counter-strategy, but in failing to man-mark Rooney Wales allowed the boy wonder too much space. Hughes could not have anticipated the calf injury to Melville before the game, which meant moving Delaney, with Simon Davies dropping to right-back and Jason Koumas brought into midfield, where he made no impression on Frank Lampard, Nicky Butt and Beckham.
England knew they had to feed their diminutive front pair on the ground, which was how they produced an invaluable early goal. Butt supplied Owen for a lay-off back to Lampard, whose low drive from 20 yards was deflected off Owen's heel into a corner of the net.
For a while it seemed that Wales might be overrun. Paul Jones had to push Rooney's low drive on to a post and behind for a corner after Mark Pembridge was caught much too far away from the Manchester United man. More poor marking allowed Ashley Cole, foraging forward, to set up his fellow Londoner Defoe, who swivelled and shot wide, and then the three principal attackers opened up the defence again, Rooney providing the pass for Owen, who hit Jones's legs.
Slowly, the visitors found their feet and their supporters found their voices after being stunned into untypical silence. In the 25th minute the archetypal Welsh move brought a first chance, Davies chipping forward for Hartson to head down, and Gary Speed volleying too high. There would be only one other moment of promise for them before the interval; Speed's header from a Giggs free-kick flying straight at Paul Robinson.
England soon regained the initiative, however, overconfidence appearing to be the only potential concern. One move of 20 or more passes produced "olés" from a triumphalist home crowd. After Eriksson's half-time warning, there was renewed urgency about the home side's work immediately after the break, leading to four chances in as many minutes.
Cole and Owen featured again, the Real Madrid striker bursting through three challenges before Danny Gabbidon recovered to deny him space for a shot and Campbell was unable to make solid contact after Beckham swung in a free-kick. The shaky Delaney was then shrugged off the ball by Rooney's belligerence close to the by-line, Jones blocking the angled shot at the near post. Finally, Pembridge could not quite intercept Owen's intelligent cut-back to the edge of the penalty area for Beckham, whose chip brought Jones to a full stretch in holding it.
Hughes was first to change tack, sending on Carl Robinson for Pembridge and pushing Bellamy through the middle in closer support of Hartson. Soon Robbie Earnshaw would replace Koumas in another positive move designed to produce the goal Wales needed. A lucky bounce in Bellamy's direction might have brought it, but, taken unawares, he clipped wide. That prompted an English presence in the technical area for almost the first time, Steve McClaren putting an urgent message over and Alan Smith increasing the Manchester United contingent, past and present, in coming on for Defoe.
The referee's whistle had clearly gone for a foul on Campbell before Davies thrashed a shot into the English net. And in the 76th minute two United old boys conjured up the second goal, Butt feeding Beckham for a superbly curled 25-yarder over Jones into the top corner.
There might have been further boosts to England's goal-difference. Gabbidon allowed Beckham a shot from close in, then cleared off the line from Rooney, who deserved a goal on his return to international football; Jones also pulled off a fine one-handed save to keep out Owen's header. Beckham, yellow-carded for a rash challenge on Ben Thatcher and suffering that injury, limped off, but the three lions had emphatically blown away the three feathers.Reuse content