Dead-ball magic brings nation's hopes to life

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David Beckham wheeled away, his face wreathed in a grin and his finger pointing vigorously. It could have been pointing at Sir Geoff Hurst or George Cohen or any of the critics who had urged Sven Goran Eriksson to drop the England captain.

That contention was laid bare after an hour of this 1-0 victory against Ecuador when Beckham produced one of his trademark free-kicks to rescue England's World Cup ambitions, just as he had done at Old Trafford to beat Greece in the last-minute of a qualifying tie for Japan 2002.

His critics say Beckham has not controlled a match in quite the same way since. And they might be right. But he still provides England's most potent threat on a regular basis. Already he has proved that this tournament with his contribution for the Paraguay own goal and the cross for Peter Crouch against Trinidad & Tobago.

No international team could easily squander such a route to goals. The fact is there is no one more adept at dead balls. Whether it will be enough against the more sophisticated nations who invariably occupy the last eight of a World Cup remains to be seen. On this evidence the answer would still have to be no.

Beckham's goals have been sparse of late. Yesterday's was his 17th in 93 international appearances, and he ended a 13-match scoreless streak since his last goal, on 30 March 2005.

For an hour yesterday the English aimlessly passed the ball, but the game then turned after Edwin Tenorio fouled Frank Lampard outside the penalty area. Beckham planted the ball carefully as four Ecuadoreans formed a defensive wall.

With expert precision, he hoisted the ball over them. Cristian Mora, his cheeks painted with the colours of Ecuador's yellow, blue and red flag, dived to his right but could not stop the ball, which went in off the post. Beckham ran wildly toward the centre of the field, hooking an arm around Ashley Cole.

The big screen in the stadium flashed to his wife, Victoria, and family in the crowd. "C'mon," they appeared to be saying. And so he did, his right-foot shot threading just about the only route to the net which Mora could not reach.

One-nil to England and suddenly where there had been twitchiness there was belief. On and off the pitch.

And then Eriksson did something he has never done in a competitive match. With four minutes to go he substituted Beckham, bringing on the Tottenham Hotspur winger Aaron Lennon to inject some pace down the right flank.

Beckham substituted? Just what Sir Geoff and the rest had wanted from the start. What a relief that Eriksson had not listened to them.

But the fact is, it had not been the smoothest preparation for a World Cup knock-out match - mostly because of the formation dancing by Eriksson. His 4-5-1 starting line-up was his fourth different formation in as many matches.

Thus we were forced a first half of no threat and precious little invention. Unfortunately, it was not the first time that sentence could have been written about England in this tournament. On the bench Eriksson sucked in his cheeks, tapped his feet and wrung his hands, while the match unfolded.

The second half proceeded along the same lines. What it needed was a spark. And fortunately for Eriksson, Beckham provided it.