Capello's wing experiment saved by striker's science

England 3 Belarus 0
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The Independent Football

From his chair in the ITV studio, Steve Bruce declared himself unwilling to reward Peter Crouch's two goals with the man of the match award because the striker had turned down the chance to join Sunderland in the summer. It was a typical piece of Crouchian luck: you win the game and then a spurned manager gives all the credit to David Beckham.

Never mind what Bruce thought, this was Crouch's night. With Emile Heskey watching from behind the dugout in his England suit, and Michael Owen a distant figure in the Club Wembley box, this was the night that the England goalscorer in a targetman's body set out his stall for a place on the plane to South Africa the way he knows best.

Crouch scores goals for England – these two goals took his total to 18 in 35 caps, which breaks down to 16 in 18 starts for his country. It is a formidable strike rate and he has the best goals-to-minutes-on-the-pitch ratio of any player in the squad, including Wayne Rooney. But, this being Crouch, he not only failed to land the post-match champagne last night, he barely got a word of praise from Fabio Capello afterwards.

Capello is famously reluctant to lavish praise on his players – Rooney aside – and his reserve when it came to assessing Crouch's performance last night signalled that the Tottenham striker is by no means certain of a place in the World Cup squad. He remains the spare chair among Capello's strikers. Crouch does not fit the physical template that Capello seems to favour – but he does score goals.

This was, it was said, a big night for Crouch to prove himself worthy of a place in the England squad. That is the perennial challenge rolled out when it comes to Crouch, no matter how many goals he scores. Doubtless, there will a few more of these supposed tests before the England squad embark for South Africa next summer.

England ended their World Cup qualification campaign last night with nine wins out of 10 and the most goals of any team in the European qualifying pool. Any other country would be tempted to get carried away. The players' lap of honour at the end of the game was suitably reserved, entirely suitable for a team who have promised great things in the past and generally delivered mediocrity.

In his pundit's suit, Bruce was not the only one in Wembley who came over a bit giddy at the sight of Beckham. Giving him the man of the match award for 32 minutes work at the end of the game was ludicrous but the adoring thousands at Wembley did not care. They were too busy trying to persuade Beckham to throw them his shirt at the end.

It was an interesting cameo from Beckham, who came on with the score at 1-0 and within a minute had rolled Shaun Wright-Phillips the ball for the second goal. Like Crouch, Beckham is another player who cannot be certain of his place in the squad come next summer and, like Crouch, he is one of those who offers England something different. But it remains to be seen whether he fits into Capello's master plan.

Capello attempted last night to formulate a plan B in the event of Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard proving either absent or ineffective next summer. That meant two wingers – Wright-Phillips on the right, Aaron Lennon on the left – and Crouch playing off Gabriel Agbonlahor. It started well and tailed off badly in the first half.

Agbonhalor made Crouch's first goal, sprinting down the inside left channel on to Gareth Barry's through ball and crossing for Crouch to force the ball over the line from three yards out. Against the right-back Igor Shitov it looked like England could expect rich pickings down the left flank.

A goal ahead within four minutes, there was the possibility of a rout. But very soon the Belarus five-man midfield stifled the life out of the four men in England's midfield. The pace of the game slowed. The 12 England squad players who had taken up Capello's invitation to watch the game from the expensive seats must have started to wonder whether they might not have been better off catching it on television.

It was not entirely the fault of Wright-Phillips and Lennon. England's passing was poor, they were incapable of stretching their opponents by moving the ball quickly from one wing and back to the other. Wright-Phillips had his dribbling boots on but he was running from far too deep, beating one, maybe two, but then running into trouble.

The inescapable feeling was that this was a formation that would have been more potent with England playing on the counter-attack. In the 21st minute Agbonlahor ran from his own half down the right wing and hit a shot that Yuri Zhevnov saved at his near post. But against the defensive- minded Belarus, England had to take the game to their opponents. Wright-Phillips and Lennon did not get enough chances to run at their full-backs and too many times they were dribbling from a standing start. When, in injury time in the first half, Glen Johnson chipped the ball over the Belarus back line and Lennon ran on to it, he looked more dangerous.

One minute into Beckham's 115th cap, England scored their second goal. Beckham's corner was played short to Wright-Phillips on the edge of the box, who moved the ball on to his right foot and hit a shot into the far corner. It was reward for Wright-Phillips, who had an industrious if not spectacular game.

Another partnership that could be filed under "experimental" was the pairing of Crouch with Carlton Cole, who came on for Agbonlahor. It was Carlton Cole's shot that Zhevnov could only parry in the 75th minute and Crouch forced the ball in from close range for his second. Ben Foster made an excellent one-handed save from Sergei Omelyanchuk. James Milner, on for the injured Wayne Bridge, and then Beckham both hit the post.

It was hardly a performance worthy of winning the man of the match award, but for Beckham and Crouch the real prize awaits next May when they learn whether Capello likes them enough to take them to the World Cup.

England (4-4-2): Foster (Manchester United); Johnson (Liverpool), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), Bridge (Manchester City); Lennon (Tottenham), Lampard (Chelsea), Barry (Manchester City), Wright-Phillips (Manchester City); Crouch (Tottenham), Agbonlahor (Aston Villa). Substitutes used: Beckham (LA Galaxy) Lennon, 58; C Cole (West Ham) Agbonlahor, 66; Milner (Aston Villa) for Bridge, 78.

Belarus (4-5-1): Zhevnov (FC Moscow); Shitov (BATE Borisov), Verkhovtsov (Naftan Novopolotsk), Sosnovski (BATE Borisov), Yurevich (BATE Borisov); Kalachev (Krylia Sovetov Samara), Kulchi (Rostov), Kutuzov (Bari), Omelyanchuk (Terek Grozny), Bordachov (BATE Borisov); Kornilenko (Zenit St Petersburg). Substitutes used: Rodionov (BATE Borisov) for Kutuzov, h-t; Kovel (Saturn Moscow Oblast) for Kornilenko, 77; Kashevski (Illichivets Mariupol) for Biordachov, 84.

Referee: L C Batista (Portugal).

Att: 76,897

H-T: 1-0

Crouch 4, Wright-Phillips 59, Crouch 75