June 26, 2006 3:00 am

Beckham delivers timely tonic for England

They were as lacklustre as ever, perhaps even more so, but thanks to a second-half David Beckham free-kick, England stumbled on to the last eight of the World Cup. Again, though, they progressed almost despite themselves: the same old problems are there in abundance.

So poor had Beckham's dead-ball delivery been in the first half that Sven-Goran Eriksson, who usually responds to any criticism of his captain by insisting his right foot is the best in the world, was frustrated enough to aim a mild punch at the side of his dug-out. This being Eriksson, the gesture was limp enough to make Tim Henman seem like a snarling enfant terrible, but beside his usual touchline impassivity it was virtually a tantrum.

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With an hour gone, though, Beckham found his range. Cristian Mora got a hand to his shot, but could only push it onto the post, from where it rolled, with an appropriate sense of apology, over the line. England fans celebrated, but the rest of the watching world presumably let out a great groan of disappointment.

At this World Cup party, England have become the boorish uncle nobody really wanted to invite, who turns out to be just as tedious as feared.

The heat, inevitably, will be blamed, and there was perhaps some justification, for Stuttgart on Sunday sweltered under thunderous skies, but other sides - Germany on Saturday, for instance - have played in high temperatures without feeling the need to launch every clearance into orbit.

Long balls aimed at Peter Crouch are infuriatingly unimaginative, but at least they stand a chance of producing something; long balls aimed at Wayne Rooney are both ugly and pointless. That the Manchester United forward struggled to make an impact, snapping at high balls like an irritated bulldog snapping at flies, said far more about the poverty of the service to him, than any great failing on hisown part.

His best chance of making an impact came when he won the ball himself. He nutmegged Ivan Hurtado to lay on a chance for Frank Lampard with 17 minutes remaining, only for the Chelsea midfielder, as he has so often in this tournament, to waste the chance, and it was only the unseen hand of the diving Giovanny Espinoza that prevented a first-half burst into the box.

Joe Cole, too, had reason to feel hard done to by Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere, as he seemed to be barged in the back by Segundo Castillo in leaping for a Steven Gerrard cross. Hurtado, too, got away with a late handball in the box.

This, though, was not a performance to be excused by refereeing decisions: this was England at their most abject - and given the standards of awfulness they have set so far in the competition, that is saying something.

It could have been worse, as England almost suffered the indignity of succumbing to a long ball, as John Terry misjudged an Agustin Delgado flick. Only a magnificent covering tackle from Ashley Cole, deflecting the ball onto the bar, prevented Carlos Tenorio giving Ecuador an 11th-minute lead. The Arsenal full-back was about the only England player to emerge with any credit, as he nullified Luis Valencia, Ecuador's most dangerous player in their previous games.

Nonetheless, it was Valencia who was responsible for Ecuador's only real shot of the second half, drawing Paul Robinson into a sprawling save to his right with a 20-yard drive.

Even the introduction of Jamie Carragher with 13 minutes to go, part of Eriksson's now customary attempt to recreate the siege of Mafeking in the England box, failed to draw an chronically unambitious Ecuador into a sustained spell of attacking.

And so England move on to the quarter-finals. In the home of Porsche, it might have been hoped that what is supposedly the best generation of England players in four decades might click into the gear of a high-powered sports car.

As it is, they are lurching forward like a patched-up jalopy.

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