England have reached next summer's World Cup finals, and in doing so seem to have unravelled almost all of the public optimism that existed for success in that tournament 12 months ago. This was a qualification campaign that began with the disintegration of a two-goal lead in Vienna and, after a journey that took in three different formations, one controversial booking and a disastrous defeat, finished where it started against an Austria team who can be thankful that they have not had to face Rooney once. Just as when he was absent at the start of the campaign, the 19-year-old remains England's saviour in waiting.
On television, by all accounts, this match was presented unequivocally as a cause for despair: a débâcle presided over by a manager who did little more than peer meekly over the wall in front of the Old Trafford dug-out. In the stadium it felt differently. Watching without the narrative of the BBC's doom-mongering pundits, this was evidently a tense, painful emergence from the darkest chapter of this team's history - that defeat to Northern Ireland on 7 September. A task that England had to accomplish without their key performer, and a match fundamentally defined by one aspect alone: the result.
Victory over Austria, as well as the Czech Republic's defeat to the Netherlands, meant that this England team have secured the World Cup qualification that was beyond the England sides of 1974, 1978 and 1994: that was the most crucial statistic of this weekend. There are, of course, many valid debates over the style of the victory, over the progress of this side's development, but they are only still worth having because this England team has fulfilled its basic obligation to the nation to qualify. The introspection over what the summer holds can be painful at times but that World Cup build-up is a privilege that Scotland or Wales would kill to have.
The dismissal of David Beckham was one of Saturday's moments when the collective instinct was to link the England captain's actions to his mistakes of the past. The case is not so clear. His first booking on 58 minutes for an elbow on Andreas Ibertsberger was an act of clumsiness that might not even have drawn a booking in the Premiership. His second challenge on the Austrian was no such thing at all - Beckham pulled out of the tackle and the full-back took a step before throwing himself to the ground.
To award a second yellow card was, above all, a very poor decision by a Spanish referee who has already dismissed Beckham for Real Madrid. It may not have been advisable for the England captain to chase down Ibertsberger with such intent but if that alone is worthy of a booking, we may as well acknowledge that he is as likely to be punished on reputation as anything else. He has, in the past, thoughtlessly sought retribution but if it is recklessness you want to impugn Beckham for this time, a study of the replay will disappoint: he clearly decides not to offer a challenge.
Without Rooney, England have an attack that lacks the rich source of options that he offers. Although Peter Crouch looked exhausted, even frail, as England's 10 men sought an outlet in the closing stages, he had his moments in the first half. A sweet touch from Joe Cole's pass to Steven Gerrard on 23 minutes presented Michael Owen with a back-post shot he could not power past Jürgen Macho.
Crouch's ability to pass a ball through a defence - his height means he can shield a ball where defenders cannot reach it - was evident after 16 minutes when he ran a ball through to Owen who was well tackled by Paul Scharner. He will never be more than an understudy to Owen and Rooney but there were shafts of light in his performance. Crouch suffers in those moments when his great height is contrasted to his relative weakness to make his weight count in the challenge.
Of all the crucial performers it was Owen whose touch seemed the most dubious. He was easily caught by a recklessly brilliant saving tackle by Scharner and then, when Frank Lampard cut open the Austrian defence, took an extra unnecessary touch before failing to lift the ball quickly enough to beat Macho. He scurried around to win the penalty from Scharner and should have had another when Andreas Dober upended him - but by comparison his finishing was poor.
All this meant that the best recent performance between Gerrard and Lampard, who effortlessly converted England's 25th minute penalty, went largely unnoticed. So, too, the performance of Rio Ferdinand who, coming on for Sol Campbell with 25 minutes remaining, overcame the indignity of his relegation to the bench. This England team is far from complete, but it only took the absence of Rooney again to remind them who represents the most important part.
England (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham); Young (Charlton), Terry (Chelsea), Campbell (Arsenal), Carragher (Liverpool); Beckham (Real Madrid), Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea), Cole (Chelsea); Crouch (Liverpool), Owen (Newcastle).
Substitutes used: King (Tottenham Hotspur) for Cole, 62; Ferdinand (Manchester United) for Campbell, 65; Richardson (Manchester United) for Owen, 81.
Austria (4-4-1-1): Macho (Kaiserslautern); Dober (Rapid Vienna), Scharner (SK Brann), Stranzl (Stuttgart), Ibertsberger (Freiburg); Schopp (Salzburg), Aufhauser (Graz AK), Kiesenebner (FK Austria); Weissenberger (Eintracht Frankfurt); Ivanschitz (Rapid Vienna); Linz (FK Austria). Substitutes used: Sariyar (Pasching) for Weissenberger, h-t; Klujic (SV Ried) for Schopp, 64; Lasnik (FK Austria) for Ibertsberger, 80.
Referee: L M Cantalejo (Spain).
Booked: England Cole, Beckham; Austria Ivanschitz, Schopp, Scharner. Sent off: Beckham.
Man of the match: Lampard.
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