England make do with second helping but miss out on feast

England 2 - Azerbaijan 0
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The Independent Football

The minimalist approach of Sven Goran Eriksson was triumphant in the end. While his team shelled the Azerbaijan penalty area and St James' Park bayed for the utter destruction of their lowly visitors, England stayed true to the frugal instincts of their cautious leader with a two-goal victory that scarcely reflected their domination.

It was a game in which England's control was so complete that the scattering of Azerbaijan attacks was met with irritation rather than alarm in a stadium that barely had to alter its gaze from an away penalty area that was under constant siege. Eriksson's team crashed shot after shot against an unyielding wall of blue shirts until the breakthrough came early in the second half with goals from Steven Gerrard and their captain David Beckham.

Once again it was Wayne Rooney who picked the lock of Azerbaijan's stubborn resistance with another daunting piece of trickery on the left wing but it was Beckham who drew most significance from last night. He dropped to his knees to celebrate his 62nd-minute strike and surfed the damp St James' Park turf in front of the Leazes End.

Later Beckham talked about his imperviousness to criticism and the strength he had drawn from Eriksson's words of support, but there will be sterner tests of the captain's longevity than this, such as Poland on 12 October by which time Beckham will be 30 and the likelihood is that the destiny of Group Six ­ currently topped by England by a single point ­ will be decided.

Last night was supposed to be a chance for a bit of fun, a turkey-shoot in the drizzle, but the only comedy moment was provided by Azerbaijan's illustrious coach Carlos Alberto. The great Brazilian had misinterpreted the careful, pre-match words of Michael Owen and accused the striker of arrogance ­ a bizarre diatribe that ended in him referring to the country's most prolific current goalscorer as "a midget".

That will bother Owen far less than his failure to add to his 29 England goals on a night that he had been told was his chance to break Malcolm Macdonald's 30-year record of five goals for England in a single game. Owen did, however, manage to pick up a booking for a careless handball that will mean he misses the next World Cup qualifier away to Wales on 3 September.

It will be six months before Eriksson is required to turn his mind to competitive action again, but he is unlikely to have been troubled by his team's failure to rub Azerbaijan off the face of the football map. He said he would settle for victory by a single goal and this performance conformed to much of what the Swede preaches about his England team: patient, if not clinical, with control of possession.

Yet for the entire first half they could not score. Azerbaijan were supposed to accept their destruction meekly and, for long periods of the first half, they did just that. They ceded great swathes of the pitch and they appeared to have given up defending their left flank which England used as a staging post for a series of attacks crafted by Beckham's right foot. But once the ball was in the area, Azerbaijan defended resolutely as their goal became a shooting target that was peppered by a posse of enthusiastic, if inaccurate, England attackers. Only once, on seven minutes, did Azerbaijan break free when their striker Gurban Gurbanov pulled away from John Terry and struck a shot that bounced out of Paul Robinson's reach but wide of the post.

At times, England's attack lacked subtle variation but it was hard to fault their industry. England complained in vain about time-wasting and the fraught mood was not helped when the fussy Portuguese referee Paulo Gomes Costa bizarrely booked Beckham for removing his boot.

There was a smattering of boos at the half-time whistle but it took only six minutes of the new half for England to take the lead. On the left, Rooney leapt over one challenge, dodged another and, with the Azerbaijan area his to roam free in, chipped a ball back to Gerrard, who struck his volley into the ground but it bounced up and in off the underside of the bar.

The second goal was England's first successful breach of Azerbaijan's shaky offside trap, which was sprung to allow in Beckham. Frank Lampard's ball from deep was the key, indeed just the kind that the England captain made his name providing, but this time Beckham was in the striker's role. He controlled the ball on his chest and slipped it past Karamenko.

Before Rooney was substituted, he gave one more glimpse of the savage power in his right boot, volleying a Beckham cross from the edge of the area that needed an excellent save from Karamenko. England attacked to the end but they had already made their point, albeit one that lacked the emphasis of goals.


Paul Robinson: Far busier than he would have anticipated. Forced to make important saves to deny Gurban Gurbanov in the early stages of both halves. Kept concentration well. Mark: 7/10

Gary Neville: Spent more time attacking down the right flank and supporting Beckham than defending, but his final ball let him down too often. 6

Rio Ferdinand: Had little to do at the heart of defence before being replaced by Ledley King. 6

John Terry: Almost repeated Stuart Pearce's infamous San Marino calamity when his mistake let Gurbanov in early on and went downhill from there. Worst performance in an England shirt. 5

Ashley Cole: Put his off-field distractions to the back of his mind as he coasted through the game. Hardly troubled defensively, but kept discipline and avoided needless forays forward. 7

David Beckham: Good delivery from the right highlighted his worth out wide rather than in the middle. Picked up a silly booking, but also scored England's second with a well-taken goal. 7

Steven Gerrard: Crucial opening goal masked a poor display. The Liverpool captain talks of wanting to dominate at a World Cup, but he laboured against one of the weakest teams in Europe. 5

Frank Lampard: Hit the post with a 25-yard effort in a bitty first-half display. Grew more dominant after the break and set up Beckham's goal, but left wanting defensively at times. 6

Joe Cole: Failed to repeat Saturday's performance, but hungry for the ball and more creative than his more experienced team-mates. Deserves decent run in starting line-up. 7

Wayne Rooney: Powerful run into the penalty area led to Gerrard's opener. The Manchester United forward found himself dropping deeper and deeper for the ball, but he still looked dangerous in the penalty area. 8

Michael Owen: Had enough first-half chances to score a hat-trick but took none of them. The 30th goal proved elusive, but if you are going to have an off-night, it is perhaps best to fall short against Azerbaijan. Booked and misses Wales away. 5

Substitutions: Ledley King for Ferdinand, 77. Had little to do other than make sure there were no costly mishaps in the closing stages. 6

Kieron Dyer for Rooney, 77. Gave England a more direct approach down the right-hand side, but will he ever do enough to warrant a starting spot? 6

Jermain Defoe for Beckham, 84. Not enough time to make an impression, but he is now clearly England's third-choice striker behind Owen and Rooney. 6

Mark Ogden

ENGLAND (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham Hotspur); Neville (Manchester United), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Arsenal); Beckham (Real Madrid), Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea), J Cole (Chelsea); Owen (Real Madrid), Rooney (Manchester United). Substitutes used: King (Tottenham) for Ferdinand, 76; Dyer (Newcastle) for Rooney, 76; Defoe (Tottenham) for Beckham, 84.

AZERBAIJAN: (3-3-2-2): Karamenko (Baltika Kaliningrad); Amirbekov (Baki Baku), Sadygov (Neftchi Baku), Hajiyev (Turan Tovuz); Hashimov (Inter Baku), Malikov (Inter Baku), Abdurahmanov (Khazar Lenkoran); Kerimov (Karabakh Agdan), Bahshive (Inter Baku); G Gurbanov (Neftchi Baku), Nabiyev (Turan Tovuz). Substitutes used: V Guliyev (Kavan Yevlakh) for Amirbekov, h-t; Akhtyamov (Inter Baku) for Nabiyev, 70; Ponomaryev (Inter Baku) for Gurbanov, 75.

Referee: P G Costa (Portugal).