Captain's strike saves Gerrard from the last-chance saloon

World Cup: Acclaimed midfielder still has lessons to learn after a tough week
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The Independent Football

There are at least two unbelievable elements in the current television advert featuring footballers. No self-respecting green keeper would let David Beckham go anywhere near his golf course if he was not going to repair the pitch marks and Steven Gerrard would not risk a kick-about with children for fear he might be shopped by a "fan" for risking injury.

It has been a learning week for Gerrard. He has discovered that wise footballers do their late-night revelling at home; that supporters now go to the tabloids rather than managers if they catch players involved in games of more than two halves; and that success can be a fickle mistress. England got what they wanted, just, yesterday, but Gerrard was among the elements that under-achieved.

The reason why Sven Goran Eriksson was not prepared to let the lack of abstinence reduce his fondness for Gerrard is that the Liverpool midfielder has become the powerhouse in the England midfield. Yesterday, the power was on alternate current ­ sometimes on, sometimes off.

The long, sweeping passes were there but not the dynamism that has elevated Gerrard towards the top rank of international midfield players in the 17 months since his England debut. He was not alone. Beckham worked prodigiously but until his late, glorious free-kick, could not locate the inspiration to unpick the surprisingly well-organised Greeks. Paul Scholes flickered intermittently on the fringes and Nick Barmby was so anonymous that Eriksson was forced to replace him on the left flank with Emile Heskey.

If that suggests the England midfield failed to live up to a reputation gilded by a dominant display against Germany it is a correct impression. England's core did not buckle, yesterday, but it did struggle sufficiently to expose the notion that this team will be one of the great forces in next summer's World Cup as wishful thinking.

The signs were apparent long before the England coach began tinkering with his formation to turn 4-4-2 into 2-8. One of elements that makes Eriksson's midfield so successful is that Gerrard, Scholes and Beckham can interchange roles, switching to be flankman, holding player or the charger, at will. It makes marking them difficult and hard to counter.

Yesterday, all three again changed roles but too often within feet of each other. This either crowded the player in possession or had England stretched so that the defence or the attack were left isolated. The Greeks, with Georgios Karagounis a force of invention throughout, held Eriksson's team, but they could have defeated them.

The game began promisingly for Gerrard. Within seconds he was charging to the edge of the area and letting loose with a shot that may not have been accurate but did carry encouraging portents. There was a time when he would have worried that his muscles would be stretched to breaking point with such early labour, but the work of a French orthopaedic specialist has given him a robustness and confidence.

There was plenty of evidence of that latter commodity, too, when he began to sweep balls to his wings with such accuracy that you realise he is something far more than just the stopper tidying things up in front of his back four. One pass, all of 60 yards to the chest of Heskey would have made Beckham or the watching Bobby Charlton proud.

The problem was that every pass had to be long as the Greeks made nonsense of the notion that their players leave their commitment at home with their clubs. They chased and harried, they gave Beckham and Scholes little space, and soon Gerrard was squandering possession. He was caught in the collective lack of closing down that allowed Angelos Charisteas to put the Greeks ahead and at half-time it could have been worse as the interval shot-count, two-eight in the visitor's favour, illustrated.

Things had to improve and it was Gerrard who heralded that improvement with a surging run that gave the substitute, Andy Cole, a chance within seconds of the restart. Moments later Gerrard fired a shot that was beaten by the thicket of bodies in its way. Suddenly, we were seeing the player who, next to Beckham and Owen, is arguably England's most important. The improvement was a fleeting one, however, and Gerrard became the all-purpose jobber filling in the gaps England left in the search for a second equaliser. Left-back, right-wing, centre-back, he seemed to embody his team's disjointedness and it was a weary and desperate player who swung hopefully in the 90th minute only for Andonis Nikopolidis to make the last of his many, fine saves.

Gerrard threw his hands to his head, a disappointing afternoon seemingly sealed. Then came Beckham and his free-kick. Gerrard's week, which had begun by his staying out late, left it late to be transformed.