England 1 Paraguay 0: Beckham delivers but England live on their nerves

Captain sets up early own-goal to stir memories of Bilbao in 1982 but concerns over Owen and an unconvincing display temper optimism
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The Independent Football

Stronger opposition would surely have been capable of finding an equaliser to the early own-goal forced by David Beckham's superb free-kick. Paraguay, even with their two Bundesliga strikers in tandem, could not do so despite some moments of unease among England's defenders, who often gave the ball away. But a win is a win, and the country has been short enough of those in the past on days when all the hype and build-up finally gives way to some football. It is always worth remembering that the last time England progressed as far as the semi-final of a World Cup, their first game (a dreadful 1-1 draw with Ireland) had been greeted with red-top calls to " bring them home".

The greatest single cause for concern was the form of Michael Owen, starting his first competitive game since breaking a metatarsal on New Year's Eve. Far from building his confidence and fitness by finishing it, he was hauled off with less than an hour played, having achieved nothing. Fortunately, Peter Crouch did what he does, being a nuisance and using a seven-inch advantage over his marker Carlos Gamarra to create the occasional disturbance in Paraguay's defence. Frank Lampard was a willing worker pushing forward and shooting fiercely, while Steven Gerrard sat deeper. The full-backs offered less support in attack but were largely untroubled defensively, Paraguay's threats coming from Roque Santa Cruz's runs off his partner Nelson Valdez down the centre.

Only once since 1982 had England won an opening game, and memories of Bilbao, when Bryan Robson scored after 27 seconds, were stirred by not just the heat but another early goal. It was a useful reminder of what a high proportion of goals at this level are from set-pieces, and how fortunate England are to have Beckham to take them. Joe Cole won a free-kick out on the left and the captain's inswinger was beautifully placed, causing panic as a crop of friends and foes lunged towards it. The unfortunate Paraguay captain Gamarra, lacking the height to get over the ball, found it skimming off his head, the goalkeeper Justo Villar managing no more than a further deflection into the net. The acclaim for Beckham from his team-mates was justified, even if he could not legitimately claim a first international goal for 15 months.

Villar would last only five more minutes, falling awkwardly as he rushed out to cut off a pass for Owen, and having to be led away with what looked like tears of disappointment in his eyes. His replacement Aldo Bobadilla, with only half a dozen caps, made an understandably nervous start following his sudden summons and soon conceded an indirect free-kick in the penalty area, Lampard hitting one shot into the wall and putting a rebound wide.

Paraguay found some composure as the midway point of the first half approached and managed a couple of shots from distance. Carlos Paredes sent one wide after an error by John Terry and Robinson had to fall to his left to save from Cristian Riveros, Gerrard collecting a yellow card for his attempted challenge. Lampard played a smart one-two with Crouch before having a strong drive held and Beckham curled a shot wide.

Ashley Cole, having set up that opportunity, then contributed to Paraguay's best moment in the last minute of the half by slipping over, Valdez fizzing one past Robinson's post. It was noticeable that after emerging for the second half, England's players were told to stay in the shade on the far side of the pitch. It became no easier as the game wore on to play at the tempo they wanted. Eriksson, becoming more ruthless by the day - belatedly some would say - called off Owen, who had been anonymous despite his protestations two days earlier at the England training camp of being perfectly fit and in prime form.

Theo Walcott being the only striker available to replace him, Stewart Downing came on to inject some pace down the left flank with modest success, Joe Cole moving into his favourite position just behind Crouch. The Chelsea man immediately had a drive held by Bobadilla but Robinson at the other end had greater difficulty with a chipped cross by Carlos Bonet. He prodded it unconvincingly out to Paredes and would have been beaten had the midfielder's shot had a lower trajectory.

Eriksson remained in his seat as usual but his eventual successor Steve McClaren was regularly out of his in the later stages of the game urging England's players to push up more quickly and exert some pressure when Paraguay had possession. That was becoming a more frequent occurrence, though Beckham and Downing combined to feed Lampard for a fierce drive turned over the bar by the goalkeeper.

An appearance by Owen Hargreaves is generally a sign that England need shoring up in midfield and with eight minutes to play he replaced a tired Joe Cole, sitting in front of the back-four in a manner that suggests Eriksson trusts him more than Michael Carrick. Further alarms were duly averted and before the finish Lampard hit another powerful effort from well outside the penalty area that Bobadilla, who had proved a competent substitute after all, pushed round a post.

England's celebrations on and off the pitch at the final blast of Snr Rodriguez's whistle had a drained air in acknowledgment of the heat and the reality that much tougher tasks lie ahead - though not necessarily against Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday, in the cooler early evening.

Man for man marking in Frankfurt by Mark Burton

ENGLAND

Star performer: Steven Gerrard (4)

Excellent first half, controlling central midfield and hitting probing passes. Yellow card for lunging tackle looked harsh. Less conspicuous in second half but held England together. 8

Paul Robinson (1)

Nothing serious to do for 20 minutes before he dealt well with Paredes' shot. Also coped with tricky cross by Bonet after an hour and Valdez shot. Little else to do. 6

Gary Neville (2)

Linked well with midfield in building attacks on right in first half. Forced into more basic work after the interval as England lost their shape but made occasional forays. 6

Rio Ferdinand (5)

Strolled for most of the first half, looking in control. Forced into some urgent interventions as Paraguay pressed after the interval. Stayed cool. 7

John Terry (6)

Commanding performance. Dominated Paraguay's strikers in first half and utilised his sharp tackling as opposing side picked up the pace later. 7

Ashley Cole (3)

Curate's egg of a display. Looked comfortable for much of the time but still managed to create problems for England in first half with a stray pass and a slip. 6

David Beckham (7)

Typical Beckham. Excellent crosses and set-piece delivery, starting with the goal. Tackled hard and worked hard in second half. Lacked pace to support lone striker late on. 7

Frank Lampard (8)

Came closest of any England player to scoring with first-half shot, which was tipped over. Anonymous in second half until unleashing stinging shot with two minutes left. 7

Joe Cole (11)

Worked hard. Few glimpses of his skill again but still managed to spark a couple of threatening attacks. Did reasonably well as stand-in striker but lacked support. 6

Peter Crouch (21)

Caused Paraguay no end of trouble in first half in the air and with his harrying. Victim of referee's eccentricity and earned yellow card for dissent. Lacked help as lone striker. 7

Michael Owen (10)

Probed for openings and worked hard to feed off Crouch knockdowns but lacked sharpness. Went off in tactical substitution that left England shapeless and impotent. 6

Substitutes

Stewart Downing (20) 6

Owen's replacement, forcing Joe Cole up front. Made a few promising runs but no end-product.

Owen Hargreaves (16) 5

Did nothing to endear himself to the doubters with nondescript outing.

PARAGUAY

Star performer: Nelson Haedo Valdez (18)

Could not be faulted for effort. Forced deep in first half to find space, but in second half showed more of his ability and caused England some awkward moments with his persistence. 8

Justo Villar (1)

Sad day for the goalkeeper. Beaten by deflection off own player, injured a minute later rushing out of area to clear. Substituted in tears. 6

Denis Caniza (21)

The full-back was eager to push forward and help Bonet to form attacks down right. Potential source of danger who caused Ashley Cole problems on occasion. 7

Julio Cesar Caceres (5)

Troubled by Crouch and eventually prospered from marking tighter and challenging early. Resorted to blocking tactics at set-pieces. 6

Carlos Gamarra (4)

Nightmare start. Met Beckham at the toss up and quickly met the England captain's free-kick to deflect in the decisive own goal. Shaky first half but improved. 6

Delio Toledo (3)

Dealt well in first half with Beckham, who he faces in Spanish league with Real Zaragoza. Brought off late on for more attack-minded left-back. 6

Carlos Bonet (6)

Linked well down the right with Caniza and provided threat from wide right in second half. Taken off to allow introduction of an extra attacker. 6

Carlos Paredes (13)

Worked tirelessly in midfield. Always involved in the action and was keen to unleash pot shots from distance. Lacked incisive touch so shaded by Valdez as team's best player. 7

Christian Riveros (16)

Quiet start and made little impression on the left of midfield. Overshadowed by opponents in first half. Fared better after the interval but still lacked impact. 6

Roberto Acuna (10)

Tried to inspire his side from deep in midfield but failed to find spark in first half. Made progress after the interval as Paraguay picked up the pace but rather disappointing. 6

Roque Santa Cruz (9)

Found it difficult in first half to unsettle England's defence. Wasn't helped by Valdez dropping deep but posed more threat after the interval. 6

Substitutes

Aldo Bobadilla (22) 6

Penalised early on for holding the ball too long. Made two good saves from Lampard.

Nelson Cuevas (23) 6

Posed threat without finding dangerous final ball.

Jorge Nunez (2) 6

Little opportunity to show his attacking qualities.

Referee

Marco Rodriguez (Mexico) 5

Fussy and officious. Fifa must have loved him.

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