Cole takes leaf out of Beckham's book

England 2 Serbia and Montenegro 1

When England use 21 players and four captains in one match the result is bound to be largely irrelevant. Sven Goran Eriksson's team will nevertheless head for Middlesbrough, and a more serious fixture against Slovakia next Wednesday, heartened by their fourth successive victory and a decent performance last night.

Having led after 35 minutes though a cleverly worked and neatly-finished goal by Steven Gerrard, England looked like having to settle for a draw after Serbia and Montenegro equalised shortly before the break. However, Joe Cole emerged from the fog of second-half substitutions to score with a Beckhamesque free-kick eight minutes from time.

Cole was one of several players to press individual claims. Wayne Rooney and Phil Neville also caught the eye but Eriksson knows who his key players are and it was noticeable that Michael Owen, the impressive Gerrard, and Paul Scholes were all withdrawn at the break. So, too, was Gareth Southgate, his only senior centre-half.

It is around these men Eriksson will construct his team to play Slovakia in next week's qualifier for the 2004 European Championships. Neville may, though, have earned himself a starting role and the genius of Rooney will surely not be denied. Last night Eriksson preferred to start with Emile Heskey yet, while this is the one ground, Anfield included, where he can be guaranteed a good reception, even here Rooney's name drew a louder cheer.

As usual with Heskey there was evidence for both the defence and prosecution as England began brightly. He quickly won a free-kick but then failed to make contact as Gerrard drifted it to the far post. After six minutes he did meet another Gerrard cross but his indecisive header proved neither goalbound nor close enough to the oncoming Owen.

The Serbs' slow opening betrayed an interrupted night. Their day had begun early after a kitchen fire triggered the alarms at their hotel shortly after 6am. The visitors were also resting several key players, including their Spanish-based quartet, but they gradually settled. After 19 minutes Slobodan Markovic broke down the right, skipping by Ashley Cole, and squared the ball enticingly only for Zvonimir Vukic to miscue his shot. Five minutes later Cole again sold himself cheaply, this time to Sasa Ilic but England escaped again.

England remained predominantly in control and deserved their lead. Matthew Upson, Southgate, Neville and Scholes were involved as the ball was passed out from the back before reaching Gerrard drifting in from the right. He played two sharp one-twos, with Frank Lampard and Owen, before steering the latter's return pass inside the far post.

The Serbs finished the half strongly forcing two corners. England survived with poor marking from the first as Gerrard cleared, but from the second Nenad Jestrovic eluded Upson to head goalwards. Though Cole headed the ball clear it seemed to be already over the line. Controversy was avoided as the Anderlecht striker followed up and made sure.

It was a blow for England as ten half-time substitutions, five each side, diminished the legitimacy of the second period. England's quintet included John Terry, who became the 25th new cap under Eriksson. With Upson suffering a dead leg near the end his introduction may be timely. In midfield Owen Hargreaves went on the right and Jermaine Jenas became the apex of the diamond.

Unsurprisingly the game lost its rhythm and its patterns became even more indecipherable when Eriksson added three more substitutes. Cole went into the hole with Jenas, after 15 minutes in his preferred central role, moved to the left

The increasingly meaningless nature of the game was underscored when the Mexican wave began rolling around the ground with half-an-hour left, followed by a request to spectators not to "throw paper planes onto the playing arena in the interests of health and safety".

The few remaining noteworthy moments concerned Rooney and Cole. Rooney's quality was highlighted with a beautiful turn away from Nenad Brnovic after 70 minutes. He then received a lecture from the Belgian referee after clattering the same player and adding a verbal bruising as Brnovic writhed in apparent agony. Cole, after a clever dummy by Darius Vassell, hit a fierce shot which Dragan Zilic parried, then embarked on a mazy run which was only curtailed by Nemanja Vidic's trip. Cole stepped up and curled in the free-kick for his first England goal.

It was a goal which probably deserved a more significant fixture. Perhaps it was only right that Rooney was then denied his first England goal by a fine save from Zilic. A first goal is always keenly sought but next week will be a far more memorable time to score it.

England (4-1-2-1-2): James (West Ham United); Mills (Leeds United), Southgate (Middlesbrough), Upson (Birmingham City), A Cole (Arsenal); P Neville (Manchester United); Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea); Scholes (Manchester United); Owen (Liverpool), Heskey (Liverpool). Substitutes: Bridge (Southampton) for A Cole, h-t; Terry (Chelsea) for Southgate, h-t; Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) for Scholes, h-t; Jenas (Newcastle United) for Gerrard, h-t; Rooney (Everton) for Owen, h-t; Vassell (Aston Villa) for Heskey, 60; J Cole (West Ham United) for Lampard, 60; Carragher (Liverpool) for Mills, 60; Barry (Aston Villa) for Upson, 86; Beattie (Southampton) for Neville, 88.

Serbia & Montenegro (3-4-2-1): Jervic (Vitesse Arnhem); Mirkovic (Fenerbahce), Vidic (Red Star Belgrade), Stefanovic (Vitesse Arnhem); Markovic (Zeleznik Belgrade), Duljaj (Partizan Belgrade), N Kovacevic (Red Star Belgrade), Dmitovic (GAK Graz); Ilic (Partizan Belgrade), Vukic (Partizan Belgrade); Jestrovic (Anderlecht).

Substitutes: Brnovic (Zeta Golubovci) for Mirkovic, h-t; Trobok (Partizan Belgrade) for Dmitovic, h-t; Malbasa (Partizan Belgrade) for N Kovacevic, h-t; Djordjevic (Obilic Belgrade) for Duljaj, h-t; Boskovic (Red Star Belgrade) for Vukic, h-t; Krstajic (Werder Bremen) for Stefanovic, 49; Zilic (Sartid Smederevo) for Jervic, 67; Njegus (Sevilla) for Markovic, 67; Mijatovic (Levante) for Ilic, 67; Milosevic (Espanyol) for Jestrovic, 74. D Kovacevic (Real Sociedad) for Vidic, 82.

Referee: P Allaerts (Belguim).