Rooney the saving grace amid disaster

Denmark 4 England 1

There will be many who try to say in the next few weeks that England's heaviest defeat in 25 years is not a portent of disaster for the World Cup next summer, but those who sat in front of Sven Goran Eriksson last night as he used that very word to describe this match are entitled to think otherwise. Some of the great unconditional hope that pervades every World Cup season and this country's prospects died in Copenhagen last night and reviving that over the months that lie ahead may be a task beyond even a manager as forgiving as Eriksson.

James's error in the 60th minute that allowed in Jon Dahl Tomasson to create Denmark's first goal should prove the knell for his England career, but there was something more fundamental to the mistakes that let in another three goals to let this collapse simply be pinned on one man. As Denmark plundered two more over the next seven minutes, there was a vulnerability to England that suggests they are not the team, not yet at least, that might take on the world next summer.

The Denmark team that inflicted the heaviest defeat on England since Ron Greenwood's side succumbed to Wales in Wrexham in May 1980 should not prove a problem next summer in Germany, if only because they are not unlikely to qualify for the World Cup.

In the first half, when Eriksson fielded what represents his strongest team, Michael Owen excepted, England offered stout but unimaginative opposition. A crisp passing side given a gleaming edge of menace by Wayne Rooney, whose goal came only in the 87th minute when the rout was complete. The striker was one of the few participants in the second-half collapse who was absolved of blame.

The 19-year-old is never better than when he plays on the edge of his temper and he had cause for frustration in the few chances that England created. One high-speed break in which the rampaging Rooney sprinted past Jermain Defoe, who was in possession, left the Tottenham player so bewildered as to his strike partner's intentions he simply passed into space. Rooney should have had a penalty when Brian Priske appeared to pull him to the ground as the teenager exploded on to a pass.

The best chance of the half fell to Defoe, who in the 30th minute met a Steven Gerrard cross from the right awkwardly on the volley. He struck it into the ground and, as the ball bounced up, Thomas Sorensen had to tip over.

The half-time mass exchange of personnel has, so often, been the crossroads at which England friendlies feebly lose their way, although rarely in terms that were quite so spectacular. The changes introduced Glen Johnson at right-back, who suffered one of the most humiliating 45 minutes of his young career, but even that was nothing compared to the humbling endured by James. After last night he can scarcely have a future as Paul Robinson's No 2.

Denmark's first goal was an old James aberration. A rush of blood, a snap decision and Tomasson had escaped James's lunge and taken substitute Thomas Kahlenberg's through ball past the goalkeeper. Even so, the former Milan striker looked safe in the corner of the area by the touchline but Ashley Cole mistimed his tackle and, freed again, the Danish captain squared the ball for Charlton's Dennis Rommedahl to tap home.

That goal belonged all to James and his poor judgement but there were to be plenty more culprits for the next two. On 63 minutes, Claus Jensen came down England's right, past Johnson, and cut the ball back into the area where only Ashley Cole could offer the most timid of clearances. As an entire England defence stood and watched, Rommedahl headed the ball back towards Tomasson who diverted it into the goal from close range.

The third, on 67 minutes, was no less awful, a defence grounded and uncertain as Michael Gravgaard pushed his way to the front post, past no less a defender than Jamie Carragher, to head home Rommedahl's corner.

With three minutes left, David Beckham found Rooney with a ball down the right and the striker placed his shot past Sorensen, but there was one more indignity awaiting England when Soren Larsen slipped ahead of Rio Ferdinand to nudge the fourth goal past James. The night had been a disaster: its implication for this team, and what they might achieve next summer, perhaps even more grave.

Denmark (4-4-1-1): Sorensen (Aston Villa); Priske (Genk), Nielsen (Brondby), Agger (Brondby), N Jensen (Fulham); Jorgensen (Fiorentina), Poulsen (Schalke 04), Gravesen (Real Madrid) Gronkjaer (Stuttgart); C Jensen (Fulham); Tomasson (Stuttgart). Substitutes used: Gravgaard (FC Copenhagen) for Nielsen, h-t; Rommedahl (Charlton) for Gronkjaer, h-t; Kahlenberg (Auxerre) for Jorgensen, h-t; Larsen (Schalke 04) for Tomasson, 64; Perez (AZ Alkmaar) for C Jensen, 73; D Jensen (Werder Bremen) for Poulsen, 87.

England (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham); G Neville (Manchester Utd), Ferdinand (Manchester Utd), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Arsenal); Beckham (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), Gerrard (Liverpool), J Cole (Chelsea); Defoe (Tottenham), Rooney (Manchester Utd). Substitutes used: James (Manchester City) for Robison, h-t; Johnson (Chelsea) for G Neville, h-t; Carragher (Liverpool) for Terry, h-t; Owen (Real Madrid) for Defoe, h-t; Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) for Lampard, 64; Jenas (Newcastle) for Gerrard, 84.

Referee: T H Ovrebo (Norway).

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