Vassell suffers penalty torture

Portugal 2 England 2 (Portugal win 6-5 on penalties)
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The Independent Football

The litany of pain gained another notation last night as, for the fourth time in seven tournaments England were broken in the torture chamber which is the penalty shoot-out.

The litany of pain gained another notation last night as, for the fourth time in seven tournaments England were broken in the torture chamber which is the penalty shoot-out.

This time the victim was Darius Vassell, a quiet, sensitive young man who one hopes will recover. Victim, not villain, for no-one deserved to be blamed after an epic performance by an England team which seems fated to fail at the highest level.

Though David Beckham skied the first kick Rui Costa missed Portugal's third to balance the scores but there was no reprieve for Vassell, England's seventh taker. Goalkeeper Ricardo Oliveira, having denied him, switched roles to beat David James and sent Portugal wild.

For 80 minutes in this cacophonous cockpit of Anglo-Portuguese longing England had staunchly defended Michael Owen's third-minute goal, overcoming the early loss of talisman Wayne Rooney to an ankle injury. Then Helder Postiga, the Invisible Man of White Hart Lane, reappeared in England's penalty area to force extra time. Two-thirds into it Rui Costa tore through the heart of the midfield, shrugged off Phil Neville, and thumped a drive past David James. England were exhausted but they produced a magnificent response as, within four minutes, John Terry headed down Beckham's free-kick and Frank Lampard forced penalties.

It was the least they deserved. Though outplayed for large swathes of the game, primarily due to the long-standing national inability to retain possession, they had defended with tenacity. Then, having been shattered by Postiga's equaliser, they thought they had scored an injury-time winner only for Sol Campbell's header, from Beckham's free-kick, to be harshly disallowed. In an echo of St Etienne in 1998, when Campbell had another 'winner' denied, England were still celebrating as their opponents raced back upfield.

England recovered to halt them then as they did for so much of an unforgettable match which had exploded into life after 140 seconds. James pumped a goalkick forward, Costinha inadvertently back-headed it and Michael Owen slipped past the ball-watching Jorge Andrade before twisting to steer the ball past Ricardo.

It was proof of Owen's class, the reason Sven Goran Eriksson never considered dropping him. His 26th goal in his 60th international it carried him into tenth place on England's all-time goalscoring chart, level with Bryan Robson, and made him the first Englishman to score in four successive tournaments.

It also demonstrated to Portugal that there is more than one way to score a goal. They were not about to try anything so direct however and were soon attempting to weave their way through the English defence.

Frequently it seemed they would succeed in doing so but, always, there was an English foot in the way at the last moment. This pattern was set early after a breakdown in communication between Gary Neville and Beckham gave Luis Figo the chance to dribble past both and cross. Cristiano Ronaldo seemed poised to score but twice Ashley Cole who handled the teenager well, blocked him. James then tipped a Maniche Ribeiro shot over and was relieved to see Steven Gerrard turn Figo's cross past the post after Deco had dispossessed Paul Scholes.

The Portuguese were pressing England high up the pitch, exposing the English defenders' discomfort in possession. With so many men sitting deep there was a lack of escape routes for their imprecise passing and the ball was frequently surrendered. Already the game had taken on the same backs-to-the-wall character as the French tie which launched England's rollercoaster adventure.

The tackling and covering was generally solid but mistakes were inevitably made and both Gerrard and Gary Neville were booked after bringing down Deco and Ronaldo respectively on the edge of the area. Fortunately Figo's dead-ball work lacked the killer touch of his Real Madrid team-mate, Zinedine Zidane, though so did that of another Galactico, Beckham, when a foul on Wayn e Rooney offered him a similar opportunity.

That was Rooney's last significant intervention as, midway through the half, after clashing with Andrade, he pulled up lame. Rooney went to hospital where it was revealed he had a broken foot while Vassell attempted to replace his huge presence. Vassell soon showed his usefulness but the psychological impact of Rooney's departure was incalculable. The Portuguese in the stadium raised their voices and their team were invigorated.

England knuckled down and with James commanding his area made it to half-time despite threatening efforts by Miguel, Costinha and Nuno Gomes. Indeed, Owen nearly doubled their lead bringing a fine save from Ricardo after Vassell flicked on another James punt.

The siege intensified after the break but for a long period Portugal were restricted to long shots. Most were handled without alarm by James though Figo's deflected 74th minute shot stretched him.

Phil Neville had by then replaced the fading Scholes and taken up a holding position, Gerrard moving to the left, while Simao arrived for Portugal allowing Figo to move into the centre. He was not there for long as Scolari made the bravest of substitutions bringing on Postiga, who scored once in 19 Premiership appearances last season, for Figo.

It reaped dramatic dividend when, with seven minutes remaining, the Spurs reserve rose to glance in Simao's left wing cross. Though dead on their feet England lifted themselves, repeating the feat after Campbell's 'goal' and Rui Costa's thunderbolt. But there was no way back after Ricardo's heroics. Weep for them.