England get away with second-half scramble

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Perhaps Sven-Goran Eriksson could suggest to Fifa that England’s matches be played in one chunk of 90 minutes, for half-time is invariably detrimental to their performance. Despite the early loss of Michael Owen to a knee injury, England dominated until the break, but by the end they were desperately clinging on for the point that kept them top of the group. “First half good, second half not so good” remains an irritating leitmotif of Eriksson’s reign.

It is as well England did scramble a draw, for it set up a second-round tie with Ecuador in Stuttgart on Sunday. The South Americans have impressed at times in the competition, but they are not so daunting a proposition as Germany, whom Sweden will face in Munich on Saturday.

That overwhelming positive, though, was shadowed by the injury to Owen. All the discussion about whether he could rediscover his form in tandem with Wayne Rooney proved sadly academic, for their partnership had lasted less than a minute when the Newcastle forward collapsed, his knee buckling horribly as his studs caught in the turf. It is hard to believe that he will play any further part in Germany 2006.

Given Owen will be 30 come the next tournament, it is possible that his agonised lurch over the touchline for treatment will be his exit from World Cup football. For a player whose arrival on the world stage was announced by that goal of such thrilling grace and athleticism against Argentina eight years ago, that would be very sad indeed. From a more practical point of view, it makes Eriksson’s decision to include only four forwards in his squad look even more questionable.

England, it must be said, did not seem unduly affected by Owen’s departure. By some distance, the first half was the best spell they have produced in the tournament. The lower temperatures probably played a part, and Rooney, magicking chances from nowhere like a conjuror plucking handkerchiefs from his sleeve, certainly did, but the key was the change of midfield shape.

The much-criticised Owen Hargreaves gave easily his best performance in an England shirt as the anchor in a 4-1-3-2. There has been a feeling that this tournament is witnessing the death of 4-4-2 and certainly England responded to the change of shape as though they had been released from a straightjacket.

Their passing, so stodgy up till now, was crisp and imaginative, and there was, at long last, movement. Joe Cole, in particular, revelled in the space afforded him by the narrowness of Sweden’s midfield diamond. The strike with which he gave England a 34th-minute lead, though, had nothing to do with tactical build-up, and everything to do with individual genius, as he sent a 35-yard volley looping over the dive of Andreas Isaksson and into the top corner.

All those pluses, though, were lost in an abject second-half. Whether because of complacency or Rooney’s increasing tiredness, the intensity dropped. Sweden took full advantage, exposing the vulnerability to the dead-ball that so afflicted England in Euro 2004.

Marcus Allback’s near-post header to level on 51 minutes was just the start of it. Paul Robinson reacted superbly to push a Henrik Larsson header against the bar, a hooked Olof Mellberg shot landed on the bar, and Steven Gerrard had to clear off the line from Kim Kallstrom. When Gerrard then headed England into the lead with six minutes remaining – the result of more excellent work and a pinpoint cross from Joe Cole – it was utterly unrepresentative.

Larsson’s jabbed equaliser as England failed to deal with a long throw was only reasonable. That stretched Sweden’s unbeaten run against England to 12 matches, but in the context of the evening, that is the least of Eriksson’s worries.

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