England 3 Argentina 2: Owen's friendly fire is trouble at the double for stunned Argentina

Road to Germany 2006: Encounter of stunning quality from both sides settled by England No 10's header
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The Independent Football

The fact that Sven Goran Eriksson's side were behind until the 86th minute to a country ranked fourth in the world who had excellence in every area of the field, gave Eriksson much to ponder, but he was delighted with the way they twice recovered, snatching a thrilling victory with two headers by Michael Owen right at the death.

Eriksson lived up to his promise to field a side as close as possible to his first choice, given the absence of full-backs Gary Neville and Ashley Cole. That was bad news for Sol Campbell, whose similarity to John Terry appears now to have dropped him down the pecking order behind the more mobile Rio Ferdinand in spite of the latter's occasional lapses.

Rightly or wrongly, Eriksson has decided that the time for experiments has passed, which is why he will not consider employing Ferdinand either in a 3-5-2 formation as preferred in the past by Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle, or as the midfield anchorman. Playing Ledley King, a Tottenham centre-half, in that role is clearly acceptable, and means that Joe Cole will miss out against stronger opposition like yesterday's.

Steven Gerrard filled some of the space on the left where Cole would have been, and Wayne Bridge, starting for the first time in a year, was encouraged to get forward from full-back in his 45 minutes before making way for Paul Konchesky.

The surprise was that Frank Lampard lay deeper much of the time. That tended to neutralise his attacking potential, though King was grateful for help in guarding the gifted Villarreal playmaker Juan Riquelme. By half-time the Tottenham man was all too aware of the sort of damage Riquelme could inflict.

Crespo has been keen in the past few days to make his peace with Jose Mourinho after an alleged falling out that kept him out of the club's game at Old Trafford last weekend. He partnered the youngest member of the side, 21-year-old Carlos Tevez, with Riquelme pulling strings behind them. England, as is customary, declined to man-mark Riquelme and therefore found the strings being jerked a little too effectively when King was not close enough to intervene.

The first warning came in the fourth minute, the Argentinian puppet-master forcing Paul Robinson into what would not be his last important save. England's response, with Owen heading in Rooney's chip from offside, was forgotten as the defence was pushed back again. Luke Young, whose positioning is often not of international standard, was caught out by Esteban Cambiasso's pass to Tevez, and after Robinson had come to the rescue two further blocks by defenders were necessary before the danger was cleared.

The Spurs goalkeeper excelled again in the 11th minute, pushing Maximiliano Rodriguez's fierce shot over the bar and Crespo then had a goal disallowed for a push at the far post. All this before Eriksson's team began to settle. When they did, Lampard headed David Beckham's corner narrowly wide and then Rooney, sent clear after Gerrard won possession, jabbed against the inside of a post.

In the subsequent mêlée there was an unsuccessful England appeal for handball and shortly afterwards a more convincing one, also in vain, as Internazionale's Javier Zanetti appeared to employ dark arts of Serie A defending in knocking Rooney off the ball.

Goals never seemed far away, and two suddenly came in a rush. Argentina were first, from a sweeping move begun by Riquelme. The ball went to Tevez and then Rodriguez out on the right who beat Bridge to deliver a cross knocked in by a poorly marked Crespo. Even before the equaliser there was time for Gerrard to hit a 30-yard drive past the post. Then Beckham, near the penalty spot, leapt to nod down a careless defensive miscue and Rooney was coolness personified in finishing.

Rodriguez, hitting the side-netting, and Tevez, demanding another save from Robinson, allowed little time for basking in self-satisfaction and soon after half-time there was another scare for England. Zanetti crossed, Crespo flicked on and the long-haired captain Juan Pablo Sorin flung himself in front of Young for a header, vainly claiming the ball was over the line before Robinson held it.

The South Americans would not be denied. In the 54th minute Riquelme floated another free-kick beyond the far post, where Konchesky failed to spot Walter Samuel coming in behind him to head past the goalkeeper, and his central defensive partner Roberto Ayala lunged in to make sure of the goal.

It was time for Eriksson to replace King with Cole, which produced a positive response. Gerrard, although moved a little deeper, burst forward to set up Lampard for a wild shot. Beckham forced Roberto Abbondanzieri into a sprawling save at the expense of a corner and Young's chip was cleared only to Lampard, whose left footed half-volley was much closer than his previous effort.

Abbondanzieri pulled off a fine double save to prevent England regaining parity. He swooped low to parry Beckham's curling free-kick and was immediately down again to thwart Owen from the rebound. For the last 10 minutes Peter Crouch came on for Young, and from his deft touch Rooney's chip was well saved. Robinson had to fall a Javier Saviola's feet, but Owen had come alive. Four minutes from the end he headed in Gerrard's deep cross from the right and in added time did the same to Cole's centre from the left. Roll on Germany.