Owen rises to captain's role as England calm the Azeri storm

Azerbaijan 0 England 1
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The Independent Online

So the captain had it right after all. The real reason why David Beckham got himself suspended from last night's match here in Baku was clearly because he had seen the weather forecast. For those pampered England footballers who have not experienced a bleak night at Boundary Park or Turf Moor, the tale of the 90 minutes in which they played a World Cup qualifying match in the bitter rain-drenched winds of the Tofikh Bakhramov Stadium will be one to tell the grandchildren.

So the captain had it right after all. The real reason why David Beckham got himself suspended from last night's match here in Baku was clearly because he had seen the weather forecast. For those pampered England footballers who have not experienced a bleak night at Boundary Park or Turf Moor, the tale of the 90 minutes in which they played a World Cup qualifying match in the bitter rain-drenched winds of the Tofikh Bakhramov Stadium will be one to tell the grandchildren.

England won with a first-half goal by Michael Owen to strengthen their position at the top of the group with a thoroughly professional display. Against committed opponents who never gave up and indeed showed considerably more passion than Wales had four days earlier, England stuck admirably to their task. Their football rarely flowed in the way it had at Old Trafford, but in the circumstances that was wholly understandable.

Having trained here 24 hours earlier on a balmy evening at the end of a day of glorious sunshine, England quickly found out why the Azeri capital is called Baku. The translation is "city of winds". When the referee arrived two hours before kick-off to decide whether the game should go ahead, his concerns were not so much the slippery pitch as the gale swirling around the stadium.

His verdict to play was the right one, although the conditions were testing in the extreme. England knew they had to keep the ball on the ground and to have no hesitation when it came to clearing the ball long and hard whenever Azerbaijan attacked. Sven Goran Eriksson may have been tempted to change his line-up, stacking the team with midfielders, but chose instead to play the same 4-3-1-2 formation which had been such a success against Wales on Saturday. It also meant minimum disruption to the team, with Newcastle United's Jermaine Jenas chosen to make his first competitive start for his country in place of Beckham.

Owen, who took over the captaincy from his Real Madrid colleague, had been desperate to claim his second goal of the season on Saturday, only for the referee to decide that the credit for England's opening strike against Wales should go to Frank Lampard. When England took the lead here after 22 minutes, there was no doubting that it was Owen's name that would go on the scoresheet as he put the finishing touch to an excellent move that defied the conditions.

Jenas switched the play across the pitch from the right flank and Lampard and Wayne Rooney added touches before Ashley Cole crossed from the left. Owen, expertly judging the flight of the ball in the gusting wind, headed across the diving Jahangir Hasanzade, who got a touch but was unable to prevent the former Liverpool striker scoring his 28th goal for his country.

It was just reward for a first half dominated by England. Jenas was particularly prominent and made several good runs down the right flank, linking well with Gary Neville. As early as the second minute Owen was beaten only by the wind after Jenas had crossed neatly from near the byline. Lampard was also a constant threat as he joined the England attack and the only minus point for Eriksson's men in the first half was a booking for Rooney after a scything foul on Ponomaryov.

Azerbaijan were restricted to breakaways in the first half but twice came close to scoring. Samir Aliyev shot wide after capitalising on some confusion in the England defence under a swirling ball, while Emin Guliyev had Paul Robinson scampering across his goal with a powerful strike from 25 yards.

Azerbaijan might have been level eight minutes into the second half but for Robinson's bravery. With the ball spinning free just five yards out, the Tottenham goalkeeper hurled himself at the feet of Aliyev as he shaped to shoot and managed to block his effort.

In Beckham's absence it generally fell to Rooney to take England's free-kicks, but the young striker fooled everyone three minutes later when he shaped to shoot from 25 yards. Rooney stepped aside and Lampard stepped up to strike a thunderous shot which Hasanzade managed to push over the bar. Cole, who was later booked for dissent, went even closer when his cross from the left deceived the goalkeeper and struck the crossbar.

Azerbaijan, however, roared on by a passionate crowd, were not finished. Rashad Sadygov drove a fierce shot across the area which Rio Ferdinand did well to block. However, Rooney responded with another free-kick which Hasanzade did well to push around the post. Rooney was substituted five minutes from the end. His, and England's work, had been done after a night that had been a demanding test of their resilience.

AZERBAIJAN (3-5-2): Hasanzade (Neftchi Baku); Hajiyev (Turan Tovuz), Sadygov (Neftchi Baku), Amirbekov (Baki); Shukorov (Antalyaspor), Kerimov (Karabag Agdam), E Guliyev (Neftchi Baku), K Guliyev (Karvan Yevlakh), Ponomaryov (no club); Nabiyev (Turan Tovuz), Aliyev (Xazar-Lankaran). Substitutes: G Gurbanov (Neftchi Baku) for Aliyev, 59; I Gurbanov (Fenerbahce) for E Guliyev, 74; Abdullayev (Khazar Lenkoran) for Nabiyev, 80.

ENGLAND (4-3-1-2): Robinson (Tottenham); G Neville (Manchester United), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Campbell (Arsenal), A Cole (Arsenal); Jenas (Newcastle), Butt (Newcastle), Lampard (Chelsea); Rooney (Manchester United); Owen (Real Madrid), Defoe (Tottenham). Substitutes: Smith (Manchester United) for Defoe, 55; Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) for Jenas, 72; J Cole (Chelsea) for Rooney, 85.

Referee: A Hamer (Luxembourg).

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