England's cruise suddenly hits the rocks

Austria 2 - England 2
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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson came uncomfortably close to losing his 15-match unbeaten record in qualifying matches as manager of England last night and an eventful draw after leading 2-0 must have had the feeling of a defeat anyway.

Sven Goran Eriksson came uncomfortably close to losing his 15-match unbeaten record in qualifying matches as manager of England last night and an eventful draw after leading 2-0 must have had the feeling of a defeat anyway.

Austria, ranked as low as 90th in Fifa's admittedly fallible ratings, certainly celebrated the outcome like a famous victory. Apparently cruising after Steven Gerrard, who had unexpectedly been declared fit, added a second goal to Frank Lampard's - the Chelsea man's fifth in seven games - England suddenly lost their way in the Vienna woods.

David James, though blameless for the home team's first goal, committed one of his occasional howlers for the equaliser by Andreas Ivanschitz, the 20-year-old "Austrian Beckham". He will have to recover his confidence, and the team rediscover their poise, before the new World Cup campaign continues with a trip to Poland and the Silesian coalfields of Katowice on Wednesday.

Poland, 28th in the world as opposed to Austria, were comfortable winners in Belfast earlier in the day despite a supposed lack of striking power, and ought logically to provide a sterner test, which hardly bodes well. Their assistant coach, Krysztof Paluszek, will have been heartened by the way Wednesday's opponents fell apart despite having control of the game for more than an hour.

It is one of the oddities of international fixtures that while England meet Poland far more often than they do Scotland these days - eight different tournaments in 32 years - yesterday's meeting was the first between these two countries for quarter of a century. That roller-coaster of a friendly game ended 4-3 in the home side's favour and had been much relived and replayed these past few days to inject a little self-belief to what was an otherwise pessimistic Austrian cause.

Hans Krankl, one of those players who becomes a national hero and is eventually thrust into the national team manager's job with little other qualification (his club coaching record was only moderate), had won seven of his previous 20 games in charge, coming nowhere near qualification for Euro 2004 in an admittedly tough section with Holland and the Czech Republic.

Last month, the Austrians were no match for Germany, going down to a 3-1 home defeat, which suggested that goalkeeper was one of several problem positions. To make matters worse, Andreas Schranz, who kept a clean sheet at Anfield for Graz AK recently, was subsequently injured, so Krankl - whose only game against England in his playing days was a 7-0 drubbing at Wembley - turned to Alex Manninger.

Gerrard's recovery, taken in tandem with Nicky Butt's absence, meant that diamonds were forgotten as the Liverpool man played in the centre of a flattish midfield, with Wayne Bridge disappointingly preferred to Joe Cole on the left in the position in front of Ashley Cole that he last filled at home to Macedonia two years ago.

Sometimes they seemed understandably uncertain about which of them was the left-back, but with both - or all three - full-backs keen to push forward, the visitors made a lively start and rounded off the opening quarter of the game with a goal.

It must count as one of the oddest in the 90-odd years since England began playing internationals abroad, with a 6-1 win in this same city. Gary Neville, marauding forward from right-back, began the strange sequence of events with a low cross that Manninger, under pressure from Michael Owen, could only parry with his fingertips. Stuttgart's lanky defender Martin Stranzl had abundant time to clear but decided to prod the ball back, possibly for a clearance from his goalkeeper, who panicked, dived towards it and picked it up.

The referee, Lubos Michel from Slovakia, rightly awarded an indirect free-kick from barely 10 yards out, which meant the massed home side should have been right back on their goal-line. If the sight of David Beckham about to shoot from the penalty spot worried English supporters as much as the Austrians, they had underestimated the footballing intelligence of the captain and Lampard. The Chelsea midfielder pulled away unmarked to the left of the goal and Beckham, set up by a touch from Alan Smith, slipped him the ball for a smart finish.

Manninger, possibly still unnerved, would have been sent off quarter of an hour later if any of the officials had spotted that he handled outside the penalty area to deny Owen, who had been sent clear by Gerrard. That was England's second-best opportunity of the half, followed closely by Owen's header over the bar from Lampard's cross and Smith's early low drive, held by the goalkeeper.

Although the atmosphere generated by a full house was stimulating - the game had sold out quicker than any other at the historic old stadium - there was little excitement at the other end of the pitch to reward the home supporters after Austria's first flurry of positive activity. In that brief period, Neville did well to stop Mario Haas breaking past him after taking a pass from Dietmar Kuhbauer on his chest. Much nearer the interval hugely optimistic appeals were made for a penalty as James went down at Haas's feet, emerging quite legitimately with the ball.

Reprieved, the home side took new heart and the crowd found new voice, even after being stilled by the second goal. Just before the hour, James's new composure deserted him with a rush from his area to meet Haas, who eluded him easily, but John Terry blocked a shot that was probably creeping in at the near post. Gerrard's brilliance appeared to have turned the tide, his delicate shot from 20 yards curling in a perfect arc into the top corner of the net. But within the space of three minutes it all began collapsing around English ears.

If James could not be faulted for allowing the susbstitute Roland Kollmann the grandest of entrances with a 25-yard free-kick, the equalising goal was a calamity. The Manchester City goalkeeper, who claims to be in the best form of his career, had Ivanschitz's shot from similar distance comfortably covered but allowed it to squirm under his body.

Two attacking substitutions, bringing Jermain Defoe and Joe Cole on to the pitch, did not quite have the desired effect, Defoe's late drive clipping the post. The threat of an Austrian winning goal, unthinkable 20 minutes earlier, remained a worrying possibility until the end of a turbulent night.