Beckham provides inspiration as Rooney comes of age

Macedonia 1 England 2
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The Independent Football

It began in most surreal fashion with a dinner-suited pianist, somehow reminiscent of John Cleese introducing Monty Python, enthusiastically belting out the National Anthem on a grand piano, while simultaneously a group of Macedonian supporters determinedly set light to a giant union flag. It ended with David Beckham leading his men to applaud England supporters, who, by FA definition, were a proscribed group and should not have been there.

This was never going to be just another Euro 2004 qualifier. Not with what was at stake in the context of Euro 2004 qualification. Not at the conclusion of a week in which the Beckham phenomenon has expanded once more with The Sun's serialisation of his autobiography - never mind the ramifications of the Hutton Inquiry when you have Becks revealing his love for Posh. Not in a highly combustible atmosphere where the bile produced by the Macedonia followers whenever a visiting player touched the ball transgressed the line of acceptability in some individual cases to racist abuse against England's black players.

And now, if the men from Liechtenstein will forgive us passing relatively lightly over the threat they pose at Old Trafford on Wednesday, for something completely different: Turkey on 11 October. As precursor of what will almost certainly be the Group Seven decider, with England likely to require a draw for automatic qualification, Saturday's contest has been an education, both for the FA and British police responsible for advising their foreign counterparts on travelling fans. This went off without apparent incident involving England supporters. Istanbul will be a different proposition entirely.

As for Sven Goran Eriksson, the coach whose schizophrenic team continues to confound all half-time expectations, it was a result gratefully received. "Tonight was important because, if we beat Liechtenstein on Wednesday, now we have to go to Turkey to get a draw, not a win," he said. "That changes everything. Now they have to attack us, score goals against us."

The avuncular Swede has surely been kissed by the gods. Ones whose speciality is repairing punctured causes. One competitive game - Brazil in the World Cup - lost in two and a half years; now seven consecutive victories. "In life, your luck changes many times," Eriksson reflected afterwards. "Today I was lucky." In fact, the truth is that he was bold and radical enough with a half-time tactical switch to merit that fortune. Increasingly, there is a begrudging admission, from all but the most sceptical, that he is blessed with rather more capacity for tactical innovation than he was once given credit for. There is actually method in Eriksson's mechanics.

He is also, of course, able to call on a man called Beckham. After a week in which the England captain has, arguably, diminished himself with some unnecessary and, at times, almost self-delusionary observations about Sir Alex Ferguson, not to mention the trite recollections of winning the heart of Victoria, it was gratifying to witness his return to his core business of playing football.

Whether he should be captain or not, well, that remains highly debatable. A man who so frequently invites dismissal with acts of petulance - like flicking a foot out at Georgi Hristov just before the break, which earned Beckham a caution - does nothing to convince us that he is capable of true leadership.

His propensity for liberating himself from Eriksson's formation, affecting the shape of the team, is also far from desirable. Yet, as a performer, he exudes self-belief and that permeates through the side. Even when beneath his optimum, he is capable of changing the course of games. Like here: one excellent first-half opportunity fashioned for Michael Owen after Beckham had bullied his way through the opposition midfield; another goal-scoring chance created for Wayne Rooney and accepted eagerly; one penalty, which proved to be the winner, dispatched precisely.

Without him, one would have to doubt whether England would have pulled through because in an abject first half the engine was creaking and spluttering alarmingly. Up front, that dependable piston-head, Michael Owen, laboured in vain. The sparks were damp, with the midfield failing to ignite adequately, although one should exclude Owen Hargreaves from that criticism. He at least brought some poise, perception and energy to the game.

The rearguard was again cause for concern, though John Terry, deputising for Rio Ferdinand, acquitted himself promisingly. The kind of vulnerability that could be so costly in Istanbul was exemplified when Sol Campbell attempted to head Vlatko Grozdanovski's shin-high cross, the ball fell kindly to Goran Pandev, whose effort was blocked by John Terry, leaving the former Barnsley striker, Hristov, to force the ball past a stricken David James. Comical if it wasn't so embarrassing.

The half was yet another contender for England's worst 45 minutes ever as Macedonia too frequently made fools of England's rearguard and negated their midfield. At the interval Eriksson took a hammer, rather than a spanner, to his team. Up to then, Rooney had looked a young boy lost. The majority of experts in the stands would have simply jettisoned the Everton man at half-time and replaced him with Emile Heskey.

Instead Eriksson supplemented his strike force with Heskey, but withdrew Frank Lampard. Rooney was deployed just behind the front two. Eight minutes into the half, Beckham delivered, Heskey gave it the nod and Rooney recorded his first senior goal. "No, I didn't think of bringing Rooney off," Eriksson explained. "But I wanted one big lad up there to maybe keep the ball a little bit more. Of course, there aren't too many teams today playing two up front and a striker in the hole. Most times it is an offensive midfielder. I think Rooney is very good in that position. He did it in a brilliant way. And he scored."

The Turkey confrontation will present Eriksson with different problems entirely, but at least he has exhibited a prowess for adaptability should events conspire against England. Afterwards there was nothing but acclaim for the England coach's strategy here. "I'm certain before I leave this country (as England coach) you will tell me I did things wrong sometimes, too," he said, with a laugh. "Yes, I'm sure about that."

For the moment, though, that date looks increasingly like extending to next summer at least.

Goals: Hristov 28 (1-0); Rooney 53 (1-1); Beckham 63 pen (1-2).

MACEDONIA (3-5-2): Milosevski (Malatiapor); Stavrevski (Diabakir), Stojanovski (Partizan Belgrade), Mitreski (Spartak Moscow); Pandev (Ancona), Sumulikoski (Sinod), Grozdanovski (Vardar), Trajanov (Fyrom), Sakiri (West Brom); Naumoski (GAK), Hristov (Zwolle). Substitutes: Braga for Grozdanovski (56), Gjuzelov for Pandev (48), Dimitrovski for Hristov (88).

ENGLAND 4-1-3-2: James (West Ham); G Neville (Man Utd), Terry (Chelsea), Campbell (Arsenal), Cole (Arsenal); Butt (Man Utd); Beckham (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), Hargreaves (Bayern Munich); Owen (Liverpool), Rooney (Everton). Substitutes: Heskey for Lampard (46), Dyer for Owen (86), P Neville for Rooney (74).

Referee: F De Bleeckere (Belgium).

Booked: Macedonia: Naumoski, Braga, Hristov, Sakiri. England: Campbell, Beckham.

Man of the Match: Beckham.

Attendance: 20,500.