Departure of Owen awakens old failings

Eriksson undermined by more inexplicable substitutions
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The Independent Football

Fittingly for the man whose time had arrived, Beckham summed up the team precisely. On occasions he was fabulous, at others he was short of possession and superfluous, but do not start blaming the England captain. The culprit was sitting on the sidelines wearing a familiar bemused expression.

Quite why Sven Goran Eriksson took off Michael Owen was a mystery but it fitted neatly into a pattern of inexplicable substitutions that have littered the Swede's record in important matches. The net result was a final 34 minutes in which his team descended into a tactical maze that left a World Cup win in Germany looking not so much fanciful as the wishful thinking of an deranged mind.

The principal victim was Peter Crouch, who spent the first half confirming the good impression he has made in recent weeks and the second half looking for a reason to win balls. With no Owen to chase his flick-ons, the Liverpool striker was rising for no purpose and Paraguay could afford to play a further 10 yards further up the pitch. But if Crouch was marginalised, so was Beckham because the restricted space limited the options for the midfield players. Stranded on the right, he resembled a spectator at a tennis match watching the ball being banged forward from the depths of England's increasingly frantic rearguard only for Paraguay to propel it in the opposite direction immediately afterwards.

When Beckham did get rare possession, the vista in front of him was as bare as scrubland and at no time was that more apparent than in the 59th minute, in what was probably England's one move of note in the second half. Joe Cole ushered his captain beyond the back four with an isolated piece of precision and when Beckham looked to deliver the killer ball there was no one to receive it. Instead he had to hit and hope with the near-inevitable consequence of a shot scuffed untidily wide of the far post.

It was another piece of ugliness in a performance that got less edifying the longer it lasted. Yet for the first half there was genuine reason to believe and Beckham was at the forefront of 45 minutes that England will hope is not the high-tide mark of the World Cup campaign.

Roque Santa Cruz, Paraguay's stellar striker, had come up with a novel plan to curtail Beckham's threat from dead balls in the build-up: do not concede free-kicks or corners. Clearly someone had not been listening, because within three minutes the deadliest right foot in football was lining up to bend a cross that needed only a touch to produce a goal. As luck would have it, Carlos Gamarra found that touch and England were off to their best start since Bryan Robson confounded the French after 27 seconds in 1982.

It was close to the perfect start and the one criticism you could make for the remainder of the first half was that England failed to make a back four pay further for defending so rank it could have been Jamaica we were watching. Beckham was at the forefront, spraying the ball with exquisite accuracy and taking the breath away with a back-heel of wonderful invention.

What went wrong, he was asked, and the best answer Beckham could come up with was tiredness brought on by temperatures reaching 30C in Frankfurt. This, remember, from a team who 24 hours previously were being heralded the fittest national team in living memory. "We got three points and that was what we set out to do," he said, grasping at straws. Another he could have pointed to was that this was the first England win in their opening match of a major tournament since Robson's bravura performance in Bilbao 24 years ago. This morning it is the chief reason for satisfaction.