England 1 Paraguay 0: England willing but wilting as the heat turns up on Eriksson

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The Independent Online

The best moment of Saturday afternoon in Frankfurt? It had to be when the ball dropped to Wayne Rooney and he volleyed it home from 30 yards with his right foot, before raising a clenched fist to the England support chanting his name. Sorry if you missed that but it took place during the warm-down for the unused substitutes after the match.

So victory over Paraguay was not pretty at times, and keeping the faith in England's World Cup aspirations will have been difficult for many during periods of an aimless second half but, most important of all, this was a victory. Only twice in their last 10 international tournaments, including this one, have England started with a win. The total football can wait for later - or for when Rooney is doing it for real.

Even in the genteel surroundings of their Black Forest base, England's players know that their win has been overshadowed by doubts back home about aspects of their performance. Yesterday the players came down from their hilltop hotel to meet their families in Baden-Baden. The streets of this little paradise for geriatric Germans were filled with familiar faces: the Beckhams stayed on the terrace, the Carricks were out for a stroll and the Carraghers explored the town. News from England, however, was best kept secret.

The television pundits and the living room experts have delivered a harsh verdict on England - some of us in Frankfurt think different. Down on the pitch a savage heat raged, as brutal as any of the temperatures endured in Portugal two years ago. "The conditions were as tough as I've ever played in," Joe Cole said. Dehydration warped England's game, and their ball retention struggled after the interval, but there was greater steel this time around.

This was a day to honour the two men at the centre of England's defence, because Rio Ferdinand and John Terry prevented any serious Paraguay attack or moment of heart-in-mouth danger. While Paul Robinson did provide one when he flapped at a cross on the hour there was otherwise a reassuring absence of threat. And then by Saturday evening, when Trinidad & Tobago had held Sweden, England's three points had started to look very precious indeed.

Like so much of Sven Goran Eriksson's regime, this was a match that was supposed to represent so much, to define England's whole approach and yet, by the end, you felt you knew even less. But victory takes priority, and it means that a win over their Caribbean opponents on Thursday will guarantee qualification for the next round. Still, Michael Owen's performance was a serious cause for doubt and neither of the full-backs, Ashley Cole or Gary Neville, inspired confidence.

The greatest worry, however, lies with Eriksson. His substitution of Owen for Stewart Downing after 55 minutes altered the shape of the team and threw his side into confusion. Joe Cole was ordered to play behind Peter Crouch in a hitherto untried formation. Privately, some players have expressed concern at the changes - they felt the substitution left Crouch even more isolated.

At half-time, there was already dismay among some of the senior players at the way in which the midfield was being bypassed in the misguided urgency to move the ball to the front too quickly. With Joe Cole as a second striker, England found themselves in yet another unfamiliar formation - incredibly one of the few that Eriksson has not tried before. He has experimented so much in the last six months and yet when he made his first World Cup substitution he plunged England into the unknown.

There is no sign that Eriksson's substitutions will be any better than when he brought Darius Vassell on for Rooney against Portugal in Euro 2004 when England desperately needed someone to hold the ball up. Or his less than inspired use of Andy Johnson in the Netherlands friendly of February last year when the centre-forward was deployed as a right winger.

In place of Owen, what England required was a striker of a similar profile: pace and goals. That man, or rather boy, should be Theo Walcott. "We thought about bringing on Theo," Eriksson said. "But for the first game in a World Cup he needs more time, more training." The final is 9 July, so Eriksson had better hurry up with his development of his 17-year-old.

There was some good news, albeit confined to the early stages of the first half. Steven Gerrard passed the ball better than any player and looked more comfortable in a deep position. England played at a frantic, unsustainable pace in the searing heat of the early afternoon. After four minutes, David Beckham's free-kick from the left panicked the Paraguay defence and Carlos Gamarra headed the ball into his own goal.

For a while it seemed possible that Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Crouch were about to impose a very English way of doing things on the Waldstadion. Around them the stadium had been colonised in the best of English traditions, by banners proclaiming Whitstable, St Albans, Scunthorpe and the "Chester City goat busters". Provincial England readied itself for a rout that never came.

Even when the Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar was injured and his replacement Aldo Bobadilla gave away a free-kick for time-wasting in his own area, England could not force a second goal. After 25 minutes they stopped for a breather and never regained their momentum. Carlos Paredes was an impressive, uncompromising midfielder for the South Americans, and used his forehead to deal Gerrard a blow to his knee. In attack, Nelson Valdez cracked a shot wide at the end of the first half.

It became a classic Eriksson retreat, a game which promised so much and yielded the minimum. It was ironic, then, that when Owen Hargreaves came on with eight minutes left, and England switched to 4-5-1, his presence allowed Lampard to break forward and shoot on goal.

The Bayern Munich man was jeered again, proving that there are still many among England's support who lack a basic football education. He knows how to do his job and he does it well. It is Eriksson the support should be concerned about.

England (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham); Neville (Manchester United), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Arsenal); Beckham (Real Madrid), Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea), J Cole (Chelsea); Owen (Newcastle), Crouch (Liverpool). Substitutions: Downing (Middlesbrough) for Owen, 55; Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) for J Cole, 82.

Paraguay 4-4-2: Villar (Newells Old Boys); Caniza (Cruz Azul), Caceres (River Plate), Gamarra (Palmeiras), Toledo (Real Zaragoza); Bonet (Libertad), Acuna (Deportivo La Coruña), Parades (Reggina), Riveros (Libertad); Valdez (Werder Bremen), Santa Cruz (Bayern Munich). Substitutions: Bobadilla (Libertad) for Villar, 8; Cuevas (Pachuca) for Bonet, 68; Nunez (Estudiantes) for Toledo, 82.

Referee: M Rodriguez (Mexico).

Booked: England Gerrard, Crouch. Paraguay Valdez.

Man of the match: Gerrard.

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