Rooney roars as England stutter

England 2 Liechtenstein 0
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The Independent Football

There were so many story-lines in the run-up to this match, it should maybe have come as no surprise that England lost the plot for more than half of its duration. But what with Beckham back at his old stamping ground, Fergie resisting Chelsea's real or imagined overtures and staying, Kenyon going south and Istanbul on everyone's minds, no one, surely no one, also expected little, local Liechtenstein to lose by just two goals and force England into a self-confessed long-ball game. The strikes from Michael Owen and a vibrant Wayne Rooney - clearly the man-of-what-should-have-been-more-of-a-mismatch - brought relief and the points. But little else. It was a victory for the visitors in all but the result.

Sven Goran Eriksson went one better than Sir Alf Ramsey's record of seven straight wins as England's manager. But that is surely where comparisons end for now. England can go into their final hothouse qualification contest for Euro 2004 knowing that just a draw against Turkey will gain an automatic passage to Portugal. Displays like this can be shelved. A more durable statistic is Eriksson's record of one defeat in 18 competitive games, but statistics erase what happens on the pitch and England were less than convincing despite the prompting of a patient crowd who were there for the event as much as the events.

David Beckham was not to be denied the homecoming he desired - or was it demanded? - despite the threat of suspension which also hung over Steven Gerrard. Despite his caution in Skopje - and El Spice had promised to show caution of his own to avoid another - Beckham was allowed to lead out the team at the home of the club he joined as a 14-year-old. Sol Campbell, England's premier defender and the final part of the endangered triumvirate, was omitted on the dubious assumption that those at the back are more susceptible to the referee's notebook.

Eriksson deployed the split, three-striker front-line he used to chase the game against Macedonia, only with James Beattie, who was disappointingly ineffective, gaining a first start ahead of Emile Heskey. The Swede just about picked his strongest available XI, Campbell excepted. The tactic against the 145th best team in the world was to try to seize an early lead and then take that valuable midfield duo out of harm's way. The tactic did not work.

This was Liechtenstein's World Cup final - the biggest match in their history judging from the largest-ever travelling support (120) from a country whose entire population would not have filled half of this 67,000 capacity stadium. And England were to be frustrated. On eight minutes, Rooney's header was tipped over and a half-volley was skied. A third effort by the 17-year-old was somehow steered wide of an unattended goal. Beattie showed composure to chest down a centre from his captain only to see it returned by the crossbar.

Beckham, on the slide, also struck the woodwork from Rooney's cross. He stood motionless, disbelieving. But something more incredible had already taken place. After just 28 seconds England almost suffered an indignity worse than falling behind away to San Marino - as they did in the dog-end of Graham Taylor's tenure. Beckham simply pulled out of a tackle to allow Mario Frick a free run. So that is what the captain meant by showing caution. Fortunately the Serie B player panicked and shot wildly over.

But Eriksson's indulgence had hamstrung his players. Beckham and Gerrard were only too aware of the danger they were in and it permeated through the team - apart from the bullish Rooney, who has no need to stand on ceremony.

At half-time Eriksson admitted that he told his players to pump the ball forward and prey on mistakes. Not the most edifying of instructions. He found some relief less than 30 seconds later when Gerrard's whipped cross was met smartly by Michael Owen's diving header. It was his 24th goal for his country - lifting him level with Sir Geoff Hurst.

Gerrard was again involved just five minutes later as Beckham found him, and his cushioned header was directed into the path of Rooney, who smashed in his second goal in two games. Vindication? Maybe, but how Eriksson must have wished those goals had come just before the break and not just after. The cushion was now there, and the Swede could make his changes by withdrawing Beckham and Gerrard.

Owen went close again with a low shot and Frank Lampard, otherwise anonymous, tried to add to his own tally. The substitute Owen Hargreaves again provided guile but it was patternless stuff as England strove to find a gloss. Liechstenstein came closest with Frick, again, finding space and forcing a low save from David James. Eriksson, as is his wont, professed himself satisfied. And, in the cold light of day, he got the result.

ENGLAND (4-3-3): James (West Ham United); G Neville (Manchester United), Terry (Chelsea), Upson (Birmingham City), Bridge (Chelsea); Beckham (Real Madrid), Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea); Rooney (Everton), Owen (Liverpool), Beattie (Southampton). Substitutes: Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) for Beckham, 58; P Neville (Manchester United) for Gerrard, 58; Cole (Chelsea) for Rooney, 68.

LIECHTENSTEIN (4-2-3-1): Jehle (Grasshopper Zurich); Telser (Vaduz), Hasler (Wil 1900), Ritter (Vaduz), Michael Stocklasa (Vaduz); Martin Stocklasa (Vaduz), Gerster (Vaduz); Frick (Termana), R Beck (VSB Hohenems), Burgmeier (Vaduz); D'Elia (Chur 97). Substitutes: Maierhofer (FC Balzers) for Michael Stocklasa, h-t; T Beck (FC Chiasso) for R Beck, 57; Buchel (Chur 97) for D'Elia, 72.

Referee: K E Fisker (Denmark).