Predator Defoe puts himself in the frame

Netherlands 2 England 2
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Jermain Defoe has a well-earned reputation as a predator: the trouble is it tends to be related to his pursuit of C-list female reality television celebrities in Essex nightclubs rather than his goalscoring record at international level.

Last night, however, Defoe finally demonstrated to Fabio Capello that he can score goals against one of the best national teams in the world and as Defoe's stock rises so the prospects of another English goalscorer making it to the World Cup in South Africa diminish. It was a good night for Defoe, it was a bad one for Michael Owen.

Once Wayne Rooney is in the squad there is probably only room for one more goalscoring little man on Capello's squad sheet. It has taken Defoe more than five years to reach 10 international goals for England but his current record is seven goals in his last nine games for his country and form like that will be impossible to ignore once Capello has to make the difficult decisions next May.

This was England against the third-best team in the world and in a disastrous first half they looked very far from third-best themselves, more third rate. The first defensive mistake was a case of blame it on Rio: the Manchester United defender Ferdinand suffering one of those dreadful lapses of concentration that caused him to pass the ball to Dirk Kuyt for the first goal.

There was a defence-splitting pass from Gareth Barry in the 37th minute – unfortunately for England it was the midfielder's own defence that he was splitting and as a result England went in two goals down at half-time. It is upon mistakes like these that World Cups are squandered. Capello said later they were "stupid mistakes" and then revised that opinion to "silly mistakes". He got it right the first time.

With the exception of their victory over Germany, against the best teams in the world – France and Spain – England under Capello have looked out of their depth. That was not quite the case last night but they still found themselves unable to threaten the Netherlands in attack in the first half. Wayne Rooney failed to hit the target with his best shot. Emile Heskey scarcely had an effort on goal.

Therein lies the problem with Heskey, substituted at half-time. When England need a goal they have to bring on a striker who knows how to score and with seven goals in 55 caps, Heskey is patently not that man. Peter Crouch has 16 goals for England but was not picked for this squad. Defoe has many flaws but he too is much more of a goalscorer than Heskey will ever be, a point he demonstrated within four minutes of coming on.

Defoe was not the only notable addition to this game. James Milner, making his debut aged 23, had an immediate effect and created the equaliser for the Tottenham striker. He did the thing that is now beyond the 34-year-old legs of David Beckham, namely getting round the back of the full-back and once in position he delivered a cross that was virtually unmissable.

Even Carlton Cole chipped in with a performance that surprised a few people. It is not certain whether he intended the intricate ball juggling on the run that allowed him to make space for a shot in the 69th minute but anyway it looked pretty good. With 11 substitutions this game did lose its way a little – and so did the Dutch team in the closing stages – but there were scraps of hope for which Capello could be grateful.

This close to a World Cup finals, every game, every friendly offers clues to the future of the team. Reputations are made, and reputations are lost. He may have been carrying an Achilles injury but Heskey looked alarmingly off the pace. By contrast, Defoe and Milner's performances suggested two players impatiently announcing that they are ready to play at this level.

If Capello was prepared to dismiss the errors of the first half with a wave of the hand and a shrug then perhaps the rest of us should too, but Capello had not been around to watch England make elementary mistakes in the past that have cost them dearly. A spark of temper, a badly-taken penalty, a goalkeeping error: all these errors have been the difference between progress and elimination in recent tournaments.

The Italian was supposed to the man who changed all that, who gave his defenders the ice in the veins. Not last night. In the right-back position Ferdinand passed the ball inside to Kuyt just 10 yards from goal. The Liverpool striker beat Robert Green twice, once when his momentum took him to the byline and then again when he came back in the other direction to give himself the angle to shoot.

Capello identified three major mistakes in the first half, the second when Frank Lampard, otherwise excellent, put Glen Johnson under pressure with a bad pass. Arjen Robben went past him easily and forced Green to push the shot over. The Real Madrid winger looked excellent last night, a potential matchwinner whose contribution was instructive for Ashley Young. He had a quiet night on his own left flank.

Barry's mistake released Robben to go scurrying through in the inside right position for the Netherlands' second goal. His shot was blocked by Green and when the ball dropped it fell to Rafael van der Vaart who scored from the edge of the area.

Finding themselves at half-time and in a bad position is nothing new for England. On 49 minutes, Lampard's ball over the top caught the Dutch square in defence and Defoe's pace allowed him to break clear. His penultimate touch was clumsy but he rescued it by clipping the ball past Maarten Stekelenburg.

Milner beat John Heitinga to cross the ball on 75 minutes and Defoe got there before Shaun Wright-Phillips. Goals like these are precious to Capello. They show him that there is more than one way for England to win matches; increasingly the England manager has less reason to go back to Owen.

England (4-4-2): Green (West Ham); Johnson (Liverpool), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Chelsea); Beckham (LA Galaxy), Lampard (Chelsea), Barry (Manchester City), A Young (Aston Villa); Heskey (Aston Villa), Rooney (Manchester United). Substitutes used: Defoe (Tottenham) for Heskey, h-t; Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) for Beckham, h-t; Carrick (Manchester United) for Barry, h-t; C Cole (West Ham), for Rooney, 59; Milner (Aston Villa) for Young, 68; Bridge (Manchester City) for A Cole, 84.

Netherlands (4-2-1-3): Stekelenburg (Ajax); Heitinga (Atletico Madrid), Ooijer (PSV), Mathijsen (Hamburg), Braafheid (Bayern Munich); De Jong (Manchester City), Schaars (AZ Alkmaar); Van der Vaart (Real Madrid); Robben (Real Madrid), Van Persie (Arsenal), Kuyt (Liverpool). Substitutes used: Sneijder (Real Madrid) for Van der Vaart, h-t; Babel (Liverpool) for Van Persie h-t; Afellay (PSV) for Robben h-t; Huntelaar (Real Madrid) for Kuyt, 78; Mendes Da Silva (AZ Alkmaar) for Schaars, 82.

Referee: N Rizzoli (It).