Terry to the rescue after England fail to impress

England 2 Ukraine 1

The Italian's reaction on the touchline at full-time told you everything you needed to know, a punch of the air with both fists and a boisterous march on to the pitch before he regained possession of himself again. That inner calm that dictates Capello's mood had ripples on its surface last night as he got a glimpse of the horror that has gripped every England manager who has watched his team inexplicably throw away a lead.

Terry rescued England's perfect record in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup finals but not before the side had lost most of the momentum that had propelled them to four victories in four games before last night. Capello has witnessed what happens when England are inspired and now he knows what they look like when ideas are running thin and time is running out. He said he could count on the famous English spirit, but he really should know that spirit has not been enough for the last 43 years.

Peter Crouch scored an opening goal that gave shape to England's first-half endeavours but when Andrei Shevchenko equalised with 16 minutes left it looked like another cruel joke on English football. Shevchenko is the £30m former Chelsea man who is arguably the most expensive failure in the history of English football; last night looked like his revenge on the nation that made him a very rich man and a very mediocre footballer.

Instead Terry intervened and Wembley was left to ponder whether it is an unshakeable spirit that Capello has instilled in this squad that got England through, or just another stroke of luck that is masking the same fundamental problems. Truly, this was not a great performance, especially not from the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, but it was a great result. Capello, more than anyone, deserves the benefit of the doubt.

His team are five points clear of Croatia at the top of World Cup qualifying Group Six and – having beaten every other country in the group – are well on their way to South Africa next year. Capello has given a return on that £6m annual salary that looks like good value – if £6m is ever good value – but the pedestrian struggles to break down Ukraine down for long periods of the game were reminiscent of a familiar problem.

The star? Wayne Rooney, who made things happen when there was precious little movement elsewhere on the field and thrived in the free role. But there was one flash of the dark side of the man, a brutal tackle on Oleksandr Aliiev in the second half that made you wince. Both Rooney's feet were off the ground and once they had brushed over the ball they connected with Aliiev.

The referee, Claus Bo Larsen, motioned that Rooney had played the ball first but when he looks at the replays he might wonder whether that fact was immaterial. The England striker clearly intended to catch the ball to legitimise his tackle and then crash into his opponent. He might just have found a loophole in the laws of the game but he can be sure that it will be closed after last night.

Win their next three games, Kazakhstan and Andorra in June and Croatia in September, and the Football Association might as well put the deposit down on the South African hotel for England. With Kazakhstan last night dispatched 5-1 by Belarus, whom England beat 3-1 in October, the first of those games does not look like much of a test and the less said about Andorra the better. It will be six months before England will be tested like they were last night.

As ever, they made very heavy weather of breaking down Ukraine, failing to get Aaron Lennon involved in the early stages and moving the ball around at a ponderous pace. An improvised take on an overhead kick from Rooney was the best of it until Crouch opened the scoring. Frank Lampard chipped in the corner, Terry headed it back across the area and from close range – completely unmarked – Crouch threw himself at an acrobatic volley.

It was Crouch's 15th England goal and not a bad way to repay Capello's grudging faith in him. He celebrated with another burst of the robot dance, although this one takes some explaining. The move Crouch was attempting was "the rope" – as suggested to him as a goal celebration by the comedian James Corden in his Comic Relief sketch with the England players. The robot has not been seen since Crouch's hat-trick against Jamaica at Old Trafford and this new version needs work.

There is no secret to getting the best out of Crouch: of his 15 England goals, 13 have come when he has started the match. Rooney's pass out to Lennon on the right wing on 35 minutes was stunning, had he put away the edge-of-the-box volley from the return pass a few seconds later it would have been an extraordinary goal.

David James allowed a relatively harmless shot from Anatoli Tymoshchuk to bounce off his body. Other than that England looked comfortable, and then on came Shevchenko. On 74 minutes, Terry gave away a free-kick along England's left side and when it dropped into the area it simply hit Glen Johnson and fell to Shevchenko. The striker buried the volley before anyone in a white shirt could react.

Capello brought David Beckham on, this was his 110th cap, in place of Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips for Crouch and changed the system. It worked. A free-kick from Beckham on the right was headed down by Gerrard, his one meaningful act of the second half, and Terry poked it home.

England (4-3-2-1): James (Portsmouth); Johnson (Portsmouth), Terry (Chelsea), Ferdinand (Manchester United), A Cole (Chelsea); Lennon (Tottenham), Lampard (Chelsea), Barry (Aston Villa); Rooney (Manchester United), Gerrard (Liverpool); Crouch (Portsmouth). Substitutes used: Beckham (Milan) for Lennon, 58; Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) for Crouch, 79; Jagielka (Everton) for Ferdinand, 89.

Ukraine (4-4-2): Piatov (Shakhtar Donetsk); Yarmash (Vorskla Poltava), Mykhalyk (Dynamo Kiev), Chygrynskyy (Shakhtar Donetsk), Shevchuk (Shakhtar Donetsk); Aliiev (Dynamo Kiev), Sliusar (Metallist Kharkov), Tymoshchuk (Zenit St Petersburg), Valyayev (Metallist Kharkov); Voronin (Hertha Berlin), Milevskyy (Dynamo Kiev).

Substitutes used: Shevchenko (Milan) for Vorinin, 55; Nazarenko (Dnipro) for Valyayev, 61; Kalinichenko (Dnipro) for Sluisar, 89.

Referee: C Larsen (Denmark).

Group Six

England's results: Results: Andorra 0 England 2; Croatia 1 England 4; England 5 Kazakhstan 1; Belarus 1 England 3; England 2 Ukraine 1.

Remaining fixtures: 6 June Kazakhstan (a), 10 June Andorra (h), 9 Sept Croatia (h), 10 Oct Ukraine (a), 14 Oct Belarus (h).

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