Lampard central to the forward planning

Mission South Africa: Beckham's injury a mere sideshow as Southgate and fellow stand-in seize their big moment
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A financial and diplomatic triumph off the pitch for the friendly friendly; between the white lines - where, as David Beckham discovered to his cost, the tackles were flying in - a familiar mixed bag associated with any match in which more than 30 players take part.

Sven Goran Eriksson has found friendlies difficult, England having won only one out of nine before Thursday night's 2-1 success in South Africa. He has done the right thing in cutting down on them, declining this season to use the international dates in August, November or April, but has found as an inevitable consequence that more is therefore read into the games that are played. Thus September's 1-1 draw with Portugal at Villa Park was heralded as the breakthrough of Alan Smith - scorer of England's goal and undisputed man of the match. These days, the spiky Leeds man does not even make it into a depleted squad.

The moral may be not to read too much into these occasions, taken in isolation. With that proviso, and in the wider context of unavailability of other players, it has been a good week for Gareth Southgate and Frank Lampard. Sol Campbell's season having reached a premature end, there was a vacancy in the back four alongside Rio Ferdinand, and Southgate lodged an impressive and ultimately successful application.

Widely regarded as a goody-two-shoes, he had shown before the Turkey match a capacity for questioning the party line over an obsession with youth, and last week was quite prepared to be named and supposedly shamed for concentrating on the South Africa game, leaving the meeting and greeting to others. Spurred on by scoring his second international goal in 65 appearances, the Middlesbrough man went on to convince Eriksson - who has sometimes appeared to lack faith in him - that he is an excellent covering centre-half with a good footballing brain.

Given the fast-diminishing options at the back, it was a timely effort. Jonathan Woodgate and Wes Brown were already injured; John Terry, who could have expected a first cap ahead of Matthew Upson, is making so little progress with his calf problem that Jamie Carragher has been called up; Ferdinand himself admitted to having had a scan on his knee, and looked ill at ease even against South Africa's limited strikers. Upson, who replaced him for the second half, was tidy and will doubtless be required again at some stage of the friendly with Serbia and Montenegro in two weeks.

The main topic occupying Eriksson's mind before then, which the game at Leicester needs to clarify, is the shape and balance of his midfield. There was no point, we already knew, in playing Beckham because of his suspension for the game that really matters, against Slovakia on 11 June. So the captain's injury on Thursday, however painful, and disruptive of his summer- holiday plans, was something of a sideshow. (Look on the bright side: with all the coverage given to metatarsals and scaphoids, exam results in biology and anatomy should be through the roof.)

"Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes will be there, that's for sure," said Eriksson, probably crossing fingers and toes as he spoke. Lampard's performance as a substitute in the final half an hour, together with his form over the second half of the season, made a far more convincing case for joining them than did Joe Cole and, like Southgate, he left the stadium satisfied that he had seized the day. "I'm as fit as I've felt all season, and coming on was a good chance for me to impose myself a little bit," the Chelsea man said. "It would be nice to be in for the next game, and if I am it would give me a great chance to put myself in the frame for Slovakia. The England midfield is packed full of quality, but openings can happen."

They are happening now, in the absence of Beckham, Kieron Dyer and Danny Murphy. Eriksson's admiration for Cole (not in the original squad) clearly does not match that of the Under-21 manager, David Platt, possibly because his rigid systems do not easily accommodate such a free spirit. Lampard has to play in an attacking role, and is much better suited to a central position, as his early struggles at Chelsea illustrated, when Claudio Ranieri persisted in using him out wide.

So who can play the holding role? Phil Neville, who has done so with unexpected success for Manchester United this season, finished up there amid all the chopping and changing on Thursday; Eriksson also suggested Owen Hargreaves, who does not join up until after the German cup final next weekend, and Gerrard, who might also be required in Beckham's position, from where he can hit his favourite long diagonal passes. Jermaine Jenas, having burst on to the scene against Australia, did little in 40 minutes as a substitute this time, but Trevor Sinclair achieved even less on the left.

In attack, it was surprising to hear the manager suggest that Emile Heskey "played very well" - Darius Vassell, who substituted, injected pace and penetration - and disappointing that Michael Owen did not contribute more. Any psychological block about his suspect hamstrings should now have been removed - "I'm feeling good, I've played almost 60 games this season" - but there was an element of going through the motions about him, not justified by his observations about the trip.

"There was a lot of PR involved," he said. "The preparations weren't great, like having only a day or so before the game and going off to meet people. But we realised it was a trip where we had to do other things."

Indeed it was, and the arrangement suited everyone: £1m plus television money for the financially pressed Football Association; prestigious opposition, European TV exposure and David Beckham helping to launch the 2010 World Cup bid for South Africa, who were even prepared to ditch their coach in order to field a stronger team. (Jomo Sono will stay in charge for the next showpiece fixture, against Trinidad & Tobago.)

So the hosts graciously swallowed their first defeat since losing to Spain in South Korea last summer. Eriksson, meanwhile, took his weary squad off to La Manga, with Wayne Rooney back on board, delighted with their "incredible spirit" and even prepared to forgive Southampton's James Beattie and Wayne Bridge, who would have been much better off in Durban, for playing a testimonial match in Aberdeen instead of resting. Even the local police were happy, making not a single arrest from 2,000 England followers, and positively gushing about how "everyone behaved extremely well".

Mission accomplished.