Macedonia 0 England 1: Crouch the unstoppable goal machine saves nervy England

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It was just Peter Crouch's luck that the night he scored an overhead kick for England, his manager was dawdling in the tunnel perusing his half-time notes and missed the goal altogether. But when he reflects that he has now scored 11 goals in his past 10 England matches, Crouch will feel that luck has very little to do with it at all.

English football has a history of selecting unlikely men to fit the role of hero but Crouch is becoming the most unusual fit of them all. His goal just 40 seconds after the interval meant that an awkward, uncomfortable night in one of European football's most inhospitable outposts was the McClaren regime's third consecutive triumph. Three wins, 10 goals scored and none conceded - international management is proving easy for McClaren.

The real story is that it was anything but a stroll for England. As the manager heard the roar and looked up from his notes to see the ball in the Macedonia net in the 46th minute, his team were still a long way from victory. In the end England were given enough resilience by their toughest campaigners - John Terry, Owen Hargreaves and Crouch, too - to leave Skopje with three valuable points.

This was not the kind of night for connoisseurs of English football to linger upon. As Northern Ireland beat Spain, Germany put 13 goals past San Marino and France had their revenge on world champions Italy, the English had to settle for one of those precarious victories against an obscure nation gripped by a fervour of national pride. "You've seen so many games like this before," said McClaren and he was certainly right in that respect. Far too many.

One messy clearance off the line by Ashley Cole and some heroics from Terry meant that England were top of Group E with six points. Whether they have a template for success in the long term will depend how soon McClaren can replace the weak links and field his strongest team. Wayne Rooney will return against Macedonia at Old Trafford on 7 October and there can be no doubt about the identity of his strike partner.

Crouch has made himself, for the time being, indispensable. Jermain Defoe had too little influence last night and Stewart Downing's toil on the left wing did nothing to convince that he is a player comfortable at this level. Joe Cole can rest easy that the left-wing spot has not been lost in his absence through injury.

"Such a threat," was McClaren's analysis of Crouch, who came through some pretty rough justice from the referee Bertrand Layec. In the early stages, the French official repeatedly penalised the striker for using those sinuous arms and legs to gain an advantage. "The decisions against him early on were unfortunate," McClaren said, "but he stuck to his task and took his opportunity well - even if I did miss it." The secret of Crouch's recent success may rest in a placid demeanour that did not allow him to be too infuriated by the shirt-pulling of the Macedonian defenders. In the first half, Crouch appeared to have won a clear penalty when Niko Noveski wrestled him to the ground in the area as the striker flicked the ball on to Defoe. The Macedonia captain Goce Sedolski was also grabbing handfuls of the white No 9 jersey out of sight of the referee.

Just 40 seconds after half-time, it looked like Phil Neville's cross had been dealt with by the Macedonian defence when Frank Lampard charged down the clearance and scrambled to the loose ball. He did exceptionally well to cut it back across the area. Waiting was Crouch, who flung those long limbs into a nimble overhead kick that beat the goalkeeper Jane Nikoloski, hit the bar and came down a foot inside the goal. The ball bounced out of the goal and there was a moment's hesitation among the players as to whether it had crossed the line - although not from the French linesman, who immediately signalled a goal. The goal was Crouch's reward but it counted as a moment of redemption for Lampard, too.

The Chelsea man was substituted for Michael Carrick six minutes from the end which will have stung his pride but this was a more influential performance than he has managed for a while. At times he was still overshadowed by Hargreaves but it was Terry who caught the eye as the centre of England's resistance. But Terry was lucky when a loose ball in the penalty area appeared to clip his arm. Not as lucky as Ashley Cole, who cleared off the line - he missed with his right but swung more successfully with his left foot.

Crouch might have had another on 59 minutes but shot wide. Macedonia finally pushed England back with the introduction of Artim Sakiri, the man who ended the international career of David Seaman with that infamous goal direct from a corner in October 2002. Now 32, the man once billed as "the Beckham of the Balkans" has a restorative effect on his side.

On 79 minutes, he hit a low shot that just drifted wide of Paul Robinson's goal. Even the late introduction of Aaron Lennon and Andy Johnson did not alleviate the pressure. On nights like these, hanging on for the win was all that counted.

Macedonia (4-3-1-2): Nikolovski (Slavan Koprivnica); Lazarevski (Groclin), Sedloski (Mattersburg), Petrov (CSKA Sofia), I Mitrevski (Energie Cottbus); Sumulikoski (Bursaspor), Noveski (Mainz), Jancevski (Ethnikos Achnas); Pandev (Lazio); Maznov (Lokeren), Naumoski (Mattersburg). Substitutes used: Tasevski (Metalurg Zaporizhya) for Jancevski, 52; Stojkov (Partizan Belgrade) for Maznov, 56; Sakiri (Inter Turku) for Naumosk, 74.

England (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham); P Neville (Everton), Terry (Chelsea), Ferdinand (Manchester United), A Cole (Chelsea); Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea), Hargreaves (Bayern Munich), Downing (Middlesbrough); Crouch (Liverpool), Defoe (Tottenham). Substitutes used: Lennon (Tottenham) for Defoe, 75; Carrick (Manchester United) for Lampard, 84; Johnson (Everton) for Crouch, 88.

Referee: B Layec (France).