Defoe promise offers solace for England

Sweden 1 England 0

There is no shame in losing to Sweden, the last England manager to beat them was Sir Alf Ramsey back in the days when the Football Association had no fear of predatory club chairmen. However, given recent events Sven Goran Eriksson would have been grateful for a win over his obdurate countrymen last night.

He had to take solace, instead, from the knowledge that his reshaped team were comfortably the better side until Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the game's only goal in the 54th minute. Thereafter the performance was forgettable for everyone except England's three new caps: Alan Thompson, Anthony Gardner and Jermain Defoe.

Of these just Defoe, 21, can be sure of a second. The Tottenham striker showed confidence and ability, linking well with the even younger Wayne Rooney and showing an eye for goal. It was the first senior debut in which he has failed to score but he did most other things right. Gardner looked raw, which he is, while Thompson, who became the first Celtic player to be capped for England, was tidy but unspectacular. He was seeking to avoid joining the likes of Michael Ricketts, Gavin McCann and Michael Ball as an Eriksson one-cap wonder but may not achieve that aim.

Of the fringe candidates only Owen Hargreaves will feel he has clinched a place on the plane to Portugal. He gave a busy, technically assured performance and further justified his temporary ownership of the No 7 shirt with a Beckhamesque free-kick.

For the likes of Joe Cole, Jermaine Jenas, Jamie Carragher and Alan Smith there is only uncertainty. Smith was hindered by the perverse decision to play him in midfield 24 hours after he had spoken of how relieved he was to be back in attack for Leeds. Cole, for the second match in succession, missed an injury-time chance to score. On such moments of fate and fortune do international careers turn.

Eriksson now has just under seven weeks to distil these lessons before naming his squad for Euro 2004. He will do so away from the public gaze, which will be something of a relief after this week. At least last night he was among friends. This port city is where he came to European prominence, guiding IFK Gothenburg to Uefa Cup triumph, and this was his first professional engagement since leaving more than 20 years ago.

His return was low-key, neither the locals nor the voluble travelling support bothering to acclaim or curse him. Not that the occasion lent itself to passion. A celebration of 100 years of watching the most boring team in Europe, after Norway, was not exactly an ideal advertising tag line.

The opening exchanges were not the best basis for entertainment either. With England retaining only four of the team who began the draw in Portugal last month, and the Swedes making six changes from the XI beaten in Albania, both struggled to familiarise themselves.

Gradually England carved out a series of chances but not before losing Darius Vassell, injured by a scything tackle from Olof Mellberg. David O'Leary might have a word for his defender back at Villa Park. Defoe came on and looked at ease. He had scored on every senior debut, for West Ham, at Bournemouth on loan, and Spurs. He also scored within seconds of coming on as a substitute to make his Under-21 debut.

Here he came close within two minutes of his arrival. He drilled a shot which the ever-alert Rooney steered past Andreas Isaksson but against the post.

England struck the woodwork again after 25 minutes. Rooney won a free-kick and Hargreaves curled it on to the angle of post and bar. Shortly before the break, Steven Gerrard, who had been quiet in his first match as captain ­ the first he has lost in 22 internationals ­ crossed, Thompson challenged Teddy Lucic and the ball fell to Rooney. He rode two tackles but could not beat the foot of Isaksson.

Defensively England were less impressive. Jonathan Woodgate has been in fine form at Newcastle but an England shirt afflicts him as a cloak of Kryptonite would Superman. It does not help that, due to injury and the Leeds nightclub affair, this was only his fifth cap in five years. In the last, at home to Macedonia 17 months ago, he formed an unconvincing partnership with Sol Campbell. This time he was alongside John Terry, the pair playing for the same place in the summer, that of Campbell's sidekick.

Woodgate again struggled to impose himself, discomfited by the bounce of the ball on more than one occasion. Terry was only marginally better but the Swedes' lack of an attacking edge meant England escaped punishment. Eriksson replaced the pair at the break and their successors were less fortunate.

Gardner, who had become the 60th player of Eriksson's 35-match reign, and the 30th new cap, headed Christian Wilhelmsson's up 'n' under straight to Kim Kallstrom. His cross was turned neatly past David James by Ibrahimovic, the Ajax striker getting in front of Carragher.

England could feel hard done by. As well as the earlier chances Defoe, following a driving run and neat sidestep, had brought a stretching save from the substitute goalkeeper, Magnus Kihlkstedt, a couple of minutes earlier. Eriksson looked to regain parity with a quartet of substitutes. Smith and Cole went on the flanks, Jenas inside and Emile Heskey in attack.

The changes made little difference. With Cole miscuing an injury-time volley it was the Swedes who came closest. The impressive Kallstrom burst through to hit the post and Wilhelmsson skinned Phil Neville only to be denied by James.

The final whistle signalled a firework display but, as birthday parties go, Sweden's celebration proved notably less memorable than that provided by Rooney for his fiancée last weekend.

Sweden 1 England 0
Ibrahimovic 54

Half-time: 0-0 Att: 40,464

SWEDEN (4-4-2): Isaksson (Djurgardens); Lucic (Bayer Leverkusen), Mellberg (Aston Villa), Mjallby (Celtic), Edman (Heerenveen); Nilsson (Halmstads), Svensson (Southampton), A Andersson (Belenenses), Wilhelmsson (Anderlecht); Elmander (Breda), Ibrahimovic (Ajax). Substitutes: Kihlstedt (gk, Copenhagen), for Isaksson h-t; Hansson (Heerenveen) for Mjallby h-t; Kallstrom (Rennes) for Svensson h-t; Jonsson (Brondby), for A Andersson h-t; Linderoth (Everton) for Elmander h-t; Ostlund (Hammarby) for Ibrahimovic, 90.

ENGLAND (4-4-2): James (Manchester City); P Neville (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), Woodgate (Newcastle United), Carragher (Liverpool); Hargreaves (Bayern Munich), Butt (Manchester United), Gerrard (Liverpool), Thompson (Celtic); Rooney (Everton), Vassell (Aston Villa). Substitutes: Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur) for Vassell, 11; Gardner (Tottenham) for Terry h-t; Southgate (Middlesbrough) for Woodgate h-t; Smith (Leeds United) for Hargreaves, 59; Heskey (Liverpool) for Rooney, 59; Cole (Chelsea) for Thompson, 59; Jenas (Newcastle United) for Gerrard, 59; Parker (Chelsea) for Butt, 78.

Referee: T Ovrebo (Norway).

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