James Lawton: Eriksson discovers another contender

Vassell was the bonus of a night which could have turned into a seriously debilitating ambush of the English psyche
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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson's grasp of basic logic has always been a moveable feast and here last night it alighted upon the old truth that you should always quit while you are ahead. This he did in the 78th minute when he sent on his second wave of substitutes and, for all practical purposes, ended the match.

The timing was no longer about experiment but celebration. England had fought back to parity with a Dutch team which had briefly threatened to embarrass them as deeply as they did at White Hart Lane last year, and just possibly of greater significance was the induction of a new member of the official queue that has formed behind the predatory Michael Owen.

Darius Vassell, Aston's Villa's 21-year-old striker, claimed the place with a magnificently volleyed equalising goal and a performance full of urgent movement and a fair sprinkling of impressively relaxed skill.

He may not have won himself a ticket to the World Cup but he should not stray too far from the stand-by desk. Certainly the booking of a summer holiday would have to go down as an act of unreasonable pessimism.

Vassell was the clear bonus of a night which could have turned into a seriously debilitating ambush of the England psyche. Instead, Eriksson had the additional benefit of repairing some of the damage which came with the mis-match which preceded the Netherlands' shocking elimination from the World Cup at the Republic of Ireland's expense. That may not have been his greatest preoccupation here, but some beatings, however ostensibly insignificant, can linger in the mind. This one, the coach could certainly put to bed.

Perish the cynical thought, but it could be said at the outset that Eriksson, in keeping with his reputation as a supreme pragmatist, had covered all bets. If the Dutch, fuelled by a level of angst rare even in their long history of broken dreams, ran amok, the coach could claim that he had gambled on gaining an insight into the potential of the powerful Michael Ricketts and the speedy Vassell. There was also, of course, the possibility that one or both of them might spark the flame of their international ambitions – and an unlikely victory over one of the best teams ever not to make it to the finals of the World Cup.

The latter prospect lasted precisely 26 minutes, by which time the Dutch had begun to find each other with the ease of the old Harlem Globetrotters and Patrick Kluivert had exploited the uneasiness which still persists so disturbingly in the relationship between Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell. Kluivert drifted away from Ferdinand at the critical moment Campbell was being physically overwhelmed by Ruud van Nistelrooy, which meant that the Barcelona striker had all the space and time he needed to drive the ball past Nigel Martyn via the body of the stricken Campbell.

None of this amounted to an Orange rampage, but neither did new coach Dick Advocaat's team seem impervious to the national revulsion which came with their failure to qualify for the big show in the Japan and South Korea. The result was some fluent passing sequences and, at half-time, a daunting reminder of the extent of the strength which will be consigned to the dry docks during the finals. Philip Cocu, whose subtle movement and unerring instinct for being in the right place at the right time provided an object lesson to the front rank but largely anonymous English midfield axis of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, gave way to the formidably industrious Edgar Davids.

However, the injection of Davids and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who came on for Van Nistelrooy, left England, and especially Vassell, underwhelmed. Though Ricketts needs a little more time to develop a big-match appetite, Vassell looked as if he had walked through an unfamiliar door and found the room to his liking. He moved easily and with considerable assurance. Wayne Bridge did himself no disfavours in a first half of straightforward endeavour and, with his brief cameo at the end, Joe Cole also showed that one day he may also be relishing the big occasion.

Sadly, it was another date with frustration for Kevin Phillips. The Sunderland striker, who must fear the swift advance of the status of nearly man, had one moment of heightened hope but his sharp header was flicked over the bar at the last moment by Edwin van der Sar. Phillips left the field with another pocketful of unfulfilled yearnings.

Vassell, by comparison, had a distinct spring in his step when he gave way to Cole after Eriksson decided to formally end the battle. He was the latest beneficiary of the coach's determination to look into every nook of the English game. There were times last night when Dutch talent seemed of a dispiritingly higher order. But, no question, Eriksson has the knack of scenting the quality of self-belief. Here, he found a genuine contender.