England won this game in unconvincing fashion scoring twice, a sentence which is fast becoming a usual opener for all England match reports. The only player to leave this game with his reputation enhanced was the Liechtenstein goalkeeper Peter Jehle who had one of those golden nights that goalkeepers occasionally have. The only player from England to leave the pitch with his head held high was the quite superb Wayne Rooney. As the young Evertonian left the pitch on 68 minutes, Old Trafford rose. His was a display of the deep lying forward art comparable with Dalglish or Beardsley at their best. At time his barrel-chested runs, arms spread wide for balance were reminiscent of Gascoigne at his youthful best prior to Italia’90.
If this was anyone's night, it was Rooney's. Playing in the hole behind two strikers he confirmed last Saturday's evidence
that he is as at home in a creative role as he is leading the line. Twice in four days he has proved that he can also score goals from that position.
Sven-Goran Eriksson now has a selection problem exactly where he didn’t think he had one, not so publicly declared his allegiance to Paul Scholes last week, it might have been possible to conclude that he will be facing an unexpected selection problem. When Paul Scholes returns he may find Rooney has his shirt. It is, after all, 23 games - more than
two years - since Scholes last scored in an England shirt. Rooney demonstrated that he can strike from a deep position as well as playing the kind of shrewdly angled passes in which the United man specialises.
Rooney's instant delivery, perfectly weighted, was the only highlight of England's ineffectual performance in the first half. Both Michael Owen and David Beckham found themselves in the clear as the result of the his intuitive perception of angles and timing. There was much else in his display, including a bicycle kick over the bar from James Beattie's glancing header, a blast from Beckham's knock-down, a clever chested pass which sent Steven Gerrard into space down the right and a lightning turn past two defenders which ended with a shot straight at the keeper. His sharp wits were evident early on when Owen's shot was blocked and he met the looping ball with an improvised header which Jehle saved superbly under the bar.
When his goal came, seven minutes after the interval, it was virtually a carbon copy of his equaliser against Macedonia, although Beckham's long ball was played from a wider angle and it was Gerrard rather than Heskey who directed the header back into the Everton prodigy's path. So Eriksson must now ponder the success of a formation discovered almost by accident, and Scholes has an unexpected challenger. Perhaps there will be room for them both, possibly alternating roles in a way which would enable Scholes to rediscover the gift that once prompted Ferguson to call him the best finisher at his club.
Curiously England took the field last night with 10 white outfield players. While there is little doubt that Sol Campbell,
Ashley Cole and Rio Ferdinand, the first two rested and the third injured, belong in Eriksson's first-choice XI, it did seem strange that Eriksson felt England could do without the "explosive speed" that Arsène Wenger so prizes in the black members of his Arsenal squad.
Beattie, replacing Heskey, claimed his first competitive start for England as a result of his prolific goal-scoring feats last season, which awakened the hope that another Alan Shearer might be in the making.
Eriksson has proved alternately loyal and ruthless with his strikers. Heskey, Owen and Rooney have his trust, as does Darius Vassell. But he discarded Andy Cole after four appearances, took only a little longer to decide that Robbie Fowler was no longer a player of international quality and set Alan Smith aside after the Leeds forward had scored against Portugal and been sent off against Macedonia. One look at Michael Ricketts was enough.
Perhaps one day Beattie will look back on a 30-second spell late in the first half and wonder if that was where his England career disappeared. In the 42nd minute Beckham made ground down the right and, without needing to beat his marker, clipped the ball deep to the far post. Beattie was waiting there, in a yard of space, with time to chest the ball down before lashing it against the bar from about eight yards. Within half a minute Beattie was turning on the ball outside the area and hitting a low shot which drew a diving save from Jehle.
Beattie had been largely bypassed in the approach play as Rooney's passing caught the eye. His own quick pass, however, played a part in setting up the opportunity from which Owen scored England's opening goal but against opposition of Liechtenstein's modest quality it was disappointing that he could not seize the opportunity to impress himself more firmly on the evening.
And that sums up the night. England did enough but never more. Chances were created and wasted. Liechtenstein played sensibly and gamely but were never more than they should be. England lacked bite and hunger in front of their own fans and all the usual clichés were trotted out ‘no easy teams etc etc’. Eriksson played both Gerrard and Beckham despite the risk of suspension for the Turkey game. As a result England lacked bite in the middle as they was no way either player was going to play at any more than 80%. The decision made no sense and risked the players unnecessarily, risked souring the relationship with their clubs and reduced the opportunity for the understudies to have a real crack at a team on home soil. How Hargreaves, Butt, Dyer and Joe Cole would have loved the chance to start but Eriksson decided to play two of his best against the weakest team in the group even though one rash tackle could have ruled them out of the game in Turkey.
It was yet another baffling decision on a very flat night for England.
James, G Neville, Bridge, Terry, Upson, Beckham (P Neville 58 mins), Gerrard (Hargreaves 58 mins), Lampard, Rooney (J Cole 70 mins), Owen, Beattie.
Subs Not Used: Robinson, Campbell, Dyer, Heskey. (Full Squad)
Jehle, Telser, Ritter, Hasler, Michael Stocklasa (Maierhofer 45 mins), Roger Beck
(Thomas Beck 57), Gerster, Martin Stocklasa, Burgmeier, D'Elia (Buchel 73 mins), Frick.
Subs Not Used: Heeb, Ospelt, Matthias Beck, Vogt.
England Goals: Owen (46 mins), Rooney (52 mins)
England Caution: Bridge
Liechtenstein Caution: Martin Stocklasa, Jehle, Gerster
Referee: Knud Fisker (Denmark)