England all nerves - and no captain

England 1 Austria 0

Fortunately, his unwanted piece of history did not prevent the home side moving closer to qualification for the finals in Germany next summer - which they reached in the evening when the Czech Republic lost 2-0 to Holland - and completing the double over Poland at the same venue on Wednesday will earn top place in the group. The dismissal did, however, lead to some edgy moments as a young Austrian side, ranked 79th in the world, found some confidence.

It also made it more difficult to assess the virtues or otherwise of a performance that owed more to grit and graft than quality. Even those attributes were welcome after the distressingly limp effort against Northern Ireland, and appeared sufficient to win over supporters who had called for the manager's head on that occasion.

Wayne Rooney will return on Wednesday after serving a suspension, just as Beckham begins one, which will be just as well, since playing to Peter Crouch's height was only a partial success. Rio Ferdinand, left out as anticipated, will also start, as Sol Campbell has a hamstring injury. Campbell and John Terry, the men in form, allowed the visitors only one dangerous moment, when both were at fault in allowing Roland Linz to strike the bar.

Without Gary Neville and Ashley Cole at full-back, there was little extra support down the flanks for Beckham and Joe Cole, though that did mean both the wide midfielders generally kept closer to the touchline, giving the team a better shape. In between them, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard erred on the cautious side, looking solid without refuting the feeling that a genuine holding midfielder would improve the overall balance. Interestingly, Tottenham's Ledley King was brought on in that position once Beckham went on his sad way down the familiar Old Trafford tunnel.

Both managers agreed the sending-off had been undeserved. Austria's Willi Ruttensteiner, standing in temporarily after the sacking of Hans Krankl, said: "I don't think it was correct. It was a wrong decision on the part of the referee." He would not, however, go as far as condemning Andreas Ibertsberger, the player involved in both Beckham's challenges, for play-acting. Eriksson, having watched television replays of the incidents, suggested that England might appeal to Fifa, but the world governing body are unlikely to listen.

"In the first [challenge] David has his arms out, but is not trying to hurt anyone," he said. "In the second, he doesn't touch him. I think it was our best performance this season without any doubts. I'm very happy and pleased with the team. We were brilliant in defending when playing 10 against 11." Sensibly, he would not be drawn on England's prospects next summer, which few will view much more favourably after yesterday's efforts.

When Lampard stepped up to the penalty spot in the 25th minute, it was the furthest forward he had been, but the outcome was just what England needed at that stage, a perfect spot-kick low into the corner of the net. The award was for a foul by the central defender Paul Scharner, guilty of a minor tug on Michael Owen's arm of the type that referees often ignore. Significantly, the Newcastle striker had received possession from a headed flick by Crouch, one of the few that he succeeded in winning.

Beckham had been prominent early on in winning a corner with a deflected shot and then curling it over towards Crouch, who distracted the defence sufficiently to allow Cole a low header that was scrambled away. There were three other "occasions" as Eriksson calls them, before the goal. Characteristically committed work by Terry set up a break for Crouch to feed Owen, who was only denied by Scharner's exemplary tackle on the edge of the penalty area. The goalkeeper Jürgen Macho, once of Chelsea and Sunderland, then dived bravely at the feet of Luke Young, before parrying Owen's shot and watching gratefully from the floor as Rene Aufhauser beat Crouch and Beckham to the loose ball.

Two powerful drives from distance by the midfielder Markus Kiesenebner, the first of which Paul Robinson had to turn over the bar, were the sum of Austrian threats before the interval, by which time there had been three or four further possibilities for England - not the least of them a penalty appeal as confident as the previous one, for Andreas Dober's reckless tackle on Owen.

The visitors came out for the second half with an extra attacking midfielder in Yuksel Sariyar and much greater self-belief, which grew again when the red card was shown to England's captain. Before that, Young had to throw himself at a cross to prevent Sariyar having a chance to equalise, and in the 58th minute Terry managed only a back-header on Andreas Ivanschitz's long ball, Linz beating Campbell to it and clipping the ball on to the crossbar.

Macho had to save from Owen, close in, and from Crouch's header at the far post, but on either side of the hour Beckham unwittingly propelled himself into the headlines again. For the first yellow card he had his arm up in an aerial challenge on Ibertsberger, though without malice. That in itself meant a ban from the Poland game, so the sensible thing would have been to remain calm for a few minutes before productively working off the disappointment. Instead, the captain lost his rag, charging into one tackle, for which a free-kick was given, and then falling for the sucker punch - or dive - as he chased Ibertsberger and tried to pull out of a challenge.

Eriksson reacted by sending on King for Cole, before the unwanted complication of an injury to Campbell, who had to be replaced by Ferdinand. Another fierce drive by Kiesenebner as Ferdinand headed out a cross was the closest the visitors came, while Lampard threatened to ease the tension with two efforts, both parried by Macho.

Great was the relief at the final whistle, Beckham's misfortunes having apparently united the crowd behind England again in their adversity after the wretched effort in Belfast. Perhaps it will prove an unlikely turning point for the team and their manager.

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