He looked like a man who had found his place in the world again. Sven Goran Eriksson offered commiserations to Hernan Crespo, snatched a quick word by the stadium exit with Steve McClaren and took his leave past a coach-load of Argentinian footballers whose post-match mood was the greatest tribute to what the England manager had achieved that night. They sat in a stunned, gloomy silence
If there is a brilliance to Eriksson then it is his role on occasions like these. No England manager could have presided over such baffling inconsistency, so many tactical formations abandoned, so little evidence that in almost five years he has stuck to a plan - much less that he has had one. But, as he did against Germany more than four years ago and against Argentina in 2002, he has now given England three seminal victories, and Saturday was the most compelling argument yet for forgetting every crime of management Eriksson has committed and giving in to sheer hope.
How Eriksson came to beat Argentina for the second time comes down to the story of two managers. He might not have known the name of the referee 24 hours before the game, he may, in the past, have allowed the meaning of certain games to escape him altogether, but just in time Eriksson grasped the relevance of beating Argentina. When their coach, Jose Pekerman, substituted Roberto Ayala and Juan Roman Riquelme, his two best players, something in Eriksson must have stirred: at last, an opponent with an even weaker grasp of the significance of winning friendly games than him.
The introduction of Joe Cole and Peter Crouch was inspired; it had the edgy feel of a gambler's last hand - to introduce these two free spirits into such a finely balanced encounter spoke of great confidence. At his best, Cole can feel like the Latino presence in England's team, a player who has the confidence to dribble round a defender within seconds of coming on, and this time he was a revelation. There was an impatience about him to change this game, an empathy with every Englishman in the stadium who craved victory, that seemed irresistible.
And then there was Crouch, who, when Cole crossed from the left in injury-time, rose above his marker, drew back his head in readiness for contact, and then - a second in front of him, a yard ahead - came Michael Owen to steal the winner. When it comes to scoring his first goal of the season, it seems that the world is conspiring against Crouch. Yet once again it was impossible not to feel grateful for his selfless presence and for those artful little touches that, coming from his feet, never lose the capacity to surprise.
It began so differently. After 30 minutes of Riquelme orchestrating every nuance, every moment of this game, you had to wonder whether England had embarked upon three years of self-delusion since the last World Cup finals, that cold creeping fear that Argentina were of an entirely different standard. Wayne Bridge was beaten by Maxi Rodriguez from a standing start when he crossed the ball on 34 minutes for Crespo to score. Both full-backs struggled and from dead balls England looked vulnerable.
In those uncertain times, Eriksson's side owed a great debt to Paul Robinson's performance: he made three crucial saves before the break and dived at the feet of Javier Saviola with six minutes left. He gave England a platform on which to build their resistance and the shift back in their favour was nothing more than a subtle application of pressure upon Riquelme.
How did this game turn back in England's favour? Wayne Rooney's equaliser on 39 minutes, tucked inside the post from David Beckham's flick-on, gave them hope and there was something heroic about Ledley King's rapid education in the art of denying Riquelme space. King is an easy target when this particular formation malfunctions but for every minute of the hour he played, he improved and by the time he was substituted, Riquelme's influence had been reduced.
Paul Konchesky already has two more England caps than of his hero Julian Dicks but the kindest thing to say about his contribution is that if his international career ends now then this was the England friendly to have played in. Badly at fault for the second Argentinian goal, Konchesky failed to challenge Walter Samuel who headed a back-post cross home on 53 minutes. Even at a goal down, this was a game from which some hope could be taken. In the centre of midfield, the old problem endured.
Afterwards, Eriksson contemplated the enduring difficulty of asking Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard to assume a defensive role and admitted that " they don't like doing it because they want more freedom". A different time, a different result and the England manager would have found himself condemned for that failure to assert himself. By the 81st minute, Gerrard, who had effectively played on the left until then, was switched to right-back with the introduction of Crouch for Luke Young. And at that point you could only feel pity for the spare chair of England's midfield.
In the first half, Gerrard played one exquisite ball with the outside of his right foot which Rooney had gathered and clipped the post with. On 86 minutes he played his second of the day to the back-post and Owen headed home the equaliser. From the jumbled position changes and shouted touchline instructions had come a shaft of light, Eriksson was on his feet - the moment was not lost on him.
In the 92nd minute England celebrated Owen's winner like no England team can ever have celebrated a friendly victory before. That the reputation of the manager who almost destroyed the value of the international friendly was re-born simply on the strength of winning one was not even the most remarkable aspect of the night. That accomplishment belonged to his team, who seemed to change and grow over the course of 90 minutes the way many had hoped they would have done over the past three years.
Argentina (4-4-2): Abbondanzieri (Boca Juniors); Zanetti (Internazionale), Ayala (Valencia), Samuel (Inter), Sorin (Villarreal); Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid), Demichelis (Bayern Munich), Riquelme (Villarreal), Cambiasso (Inter); Tevez (Corinthians), Crespo (Chelsea). Substitutes used: Saviola (Seville) for Crespo, 70; Coloccini (Deportivo la Coruña) for Ayala, 74; Cruz (Inter) for Tevez, 80; Gonzalez (Porto) for Riquelme, 84.
England (4-1-3-2): Robinson (Tottenham); Young (Charlton), Terry (Chelsea), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Bridge (Chelsea); King (Tottenham); Beckham (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), Gerrard (Liverpool); Owen (Newcastle), Rooney (Manchester United). Substitutes used: Konchesky (West Ham) for Bridge, h-t; J Cole (Chelsea) for King, 58; Crouch (Liverpool) for Young, 81.
Referee: P Leuba (Switzerland).
Booked: Argentina Samuel, Rodriguez; England Young, Lampard, J Cole.
Man of the match: Rooney.Reuse content