The rewards were so much better than the manner of the accomplishment. Sven Goran Eriksson's team are in the quarter-finals of the World Cup but it took them so long to find their way that they invited despair until a low, swirling free-kick from David Beckham delivered England from a strange kind of inertia.
For Beckham, it was a blow struck as he appeared to be at his lowest ebb. Out on the right wing, hands on knees, he coughed, spluttered and threw up and looked to be inviting his own substitution. England had failed to break down an unspectacular Ecuador team in any meaningful way until Beckham found his range from 30 yards. But the baffling nature of this performance will not be so easily swept away.
Beckham rescued England, and is now the only Englishman to have scored in three World Cup finals. In the tidal wave of relief that spread through the stadium it would have been an apposite moment to say that England now have the momentum to take them past the Netherlands or Portugal in the next round in Gelsenkirchen on Saturday. That is not the case. While Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney excelled again, it would appear that England are still stumbling rather than gliding to the quarter-finals.
There was a heat that penetrated to the core in Stuttgart yesterday. The official reading was 28C and 45 per cent humidity but this was an oppressive, draining kind of day like none other England have experienced. Far removed from the clear air of their training ground in Bühlertal, it was an afternoon that felt on the cusp of a thunderstorm.
In the tunnel, Wayne Rooney leant forward and wiped his brow on the back of Steven Gerrard's shirt. The England players had warmed up in the little slice of shadow afforded by one of the stands but warming-up on a day like this seemed like a superfluous task. In the pre-match exercises Rooney puffed out his cheeks, playing alone in attack, his task would prove the most onerous of all.
In the dug-out, Eriksson removed his jacket and for the first half hour he was more demonstrative than usual. If this was the master plan then it was melting in the heat. Rooney's toil was predictably hard and lonely but it was the nature of the service that was the greatest concern. England's passing was as ragged as the players' breathing.
Even with Michael Carrick in front of the back four, the man who was supposed to free Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the passing was still hectic, the movement ponderous - every sequence perilously close to breakdown. Owen Hargreaves at right-back went past Beckham once to provide an incursion but not a second time. Too often Rooney chased exhausting long balls into corners.
Carrick's distribution was far from the worst among the England players but it gave his team none of the extra tempo and penetration that was required. There was no width and every time Rooney delved deep into the field for possession you feared for his limited supplies of energy.
The best chance? That fell to Ecuador on 11 minutes when Geovanny Espinoza struck a long ball out of defence which was knocked on by Agustin Delgado and John Terry mistimed his header. It looped back down behind him into the path of Carlos Tenorio. The striker would surely have beaten Paul Robinson had Ashley Cole not thrust a leg out that deflected the ball on to the crossbar and over.
This was a half of football that became increasingly desperate as England's rhythm all but disappeared. Terry was booked for a foul on Tenorio and gradually slipped into the kind of performance that defied his last two years in the Premiership. Searching for stable performances was a thankless task: Hargreaves acquitted himself well at right-back and Rooney frantically tried to create an angle for his team-mates to pass along, but it was Ecuador who finished the stronger.
In the 28th minute, Gerrard snapped a pass into Rooney who, with his back to goal, laid the ball off to Lampard whose shot was saved, but this was all that caught the eye. Nothing that troubled the space behind the full-backs, nothing that unsettled the Ecuador defence. Edison Mendez's free-kick was deflected narrowly wide by Rio Ferdinand.
Rooney left the pitch at half-time with a slight shake of the head and a look that suggested something fundamental had to change about this team.
As the content of Eriksson's team-talk seemed to be having no effect, Peter Crouch shoved his shin pads down his socks and started taking instructions. Then Lampard won a free-kick in the left channel and England conjured a goal that belied the quality of their football thus far.
Beckham stood over the wall and glanced up to take stock of Gerrard who stood on the far right of the box and signalled enthusiastically for the ball. Despite a previous sequence of poor free-kicks Beckham ignored him and struck a right-footed shot low at the foot of Cristian Mora's right post. It flicked off the post, past Mora's glove and in.
They scarcely deserved it, but then a team of the sum of England's parts is surely always capable of a flash of inspiration. It seemed to liberate them. For Beckham it was a small personal triumph, he had looked like the most likely candidate for substitution until that point.
England were given a chance to seal the victory a minute later when Lampard broke through but, with his confidence seemingly eroded, elected to play in Rooney and saw his pass intercepted. Meanwhile, Beckham stood with his hands on his knees, breathing hard.
On 74 minutes, Rooney drifted out left and, with three touches, pulled a ball out of the air and slipped it through the legs of Ivan Hurtado before hurtling into the area. A glance up told him that Lampard was arriving unmarked on the edge of the box but the midfielder lifted the ball inexplicably high and over the crossbar.
A shot from Segundo Castillo stretched Robinson at his near post but otherwise, England looked comfortable at last. Joe Cole replaced Jamie Carragher and Hargreaves was pushed into midfield with Gerrard moved to the left. Aaron Lennon's late cameo was uplifting and it was he who troubled Ecuador as the clock ran down.
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