England stutter to first victory
England survived an early penalty in the Josy Barthel Stadium in Luxembourg last night to claim their first victory in the 2000 European Championship qualifiers, but again the performance was less than inspiring.
A Michael Owen strike, and a penalty from Alan Shearer, saw Glenn Hoddle's team take a 2-0 lead by half-time and Gareth Southgate added a third in the 90th minute, volleying home after his own header from a Phil Neville cross had been played back to him.
They had taken the field with Wembley's derision still ringing in their ears. Points were essential, but so was a restoration of English self-esteem following Saturday's drab goal-less draw against Bulgaria coming on top of the 2-1 defeat in Sweden five weeks earlier.
The decisive matches will be when the Poles and Sweden visit Wembley next year, followed by return fixtures in Bulgaria and Poland. But unless England could beat Luxembourg last night their cause, not to mention Hoddle's position as coach, was as good as lost.
Hoddle replaced Gary Neville in his back three with Rio Ferdinand, England's only natural sweeper, in order to improve the quality of service from the back so obviously lacking against Bulgaria at Wembley.
Gary's younger brother Phil came in at left wing-back for the unfit Graeme Le Saux and David Batty, a substitute on Saturday, stayed in midfield in place of Robert Lee.
Jamie Redknapp was serving a one-match ban but David Beckham was back after his World Cup suspension. His influence was immediate as was the uncertainty of the Luxembourg defence, but within six minutes England were in crisis.
A long pass from Nico Funck cleared the defence and dropped into the path of Marcel Christophe. David Seaman seemed to have the danger covered but he hesitated, allowing Christophe to run at him with the ball. Now Seaman acted, bringing down the Luxembourg striker.
A goal from San Marino in less time than it takes to count to 10 had finally buried the England management of Graham Taylor. Now Hoddle was faced with the prospect of seeing his side fall behind to a team of bank workers and civil servants.
Danny Theis, however, came to England's rescue. His walk-back looked confident but he stuttered in his run-up before lifting the penalty high over the bar.
England breathed deeply and resumed their search for goals. But the passing was again predictable and un-imaginative, although several shots hit bodies, with one from Beckham being beaten out by goalkeeper Paul Koch.
There was, nevertheless, a certain inevitability about the goal which put England ahead after 18 minutes. Sharp passes by Beckham and Darren Anderton had the defenders all at sea on the saturated surface and Owen's speed of reaction did the rest.
The young Liverpool player cut through the defence at an acute angle before pivoting to place the ball inside the far post with Jeff Strasser arriving just too late to stop the ball crossing the line.
Clearly England did not want to leave it there, but with Shearer and Owen tightly marked by Funck and Laurent Deville, clear scoring chances were difficult to come by.
Not that Luxembourg were spent as an attacking force. Their consistent width and the ease with which they switched the ball from wing to wing often stretched England's cover and just past the half-hour Deville produced a 35-yard shot which skidded off the pitch and hit a surprised Seaman on the chest.
The England goalkeeper quickly recovered himself and gathered the ball safely but clearly England needed a bigger lead.
A second goal duly arrived seven minutes before half-time, albeit through another, more sharply-disputed penalty. The ball squirted up from Anderton's boot and the Greek referee penalised Cardoni for hands before booking him when he protested. Shearer's penalty brooked no argument, but England appeared to have been slightly fortunate all the same.
After half-time the accuracy of England's passing improved although Luxembourg continued to pull nine men back in defence and crowded their opponents for space when within range.
Around the hour Shearer, set up by David Batty, went close with a sharp shot on the turn but England were not putting Koch under the sort of pressure the goalkeeper had experienced earlier. Again it was a tale of hopeful crosses and final passes lacking the quality to cause a well-organised defence serious problems.
Asked if the result would appease his critics, Hoddle said: "I don't know about that," he said. "All I can say is that we were here for three points and we have got them. At the end of the day, we have got three points on the board.
"In the second half we got methodical and played at a slow pace. But we got three goals, and that's the job done."
Luxembourg: Koch, Feron, Funck, L. Deville, Strasser, Saibene, Theis (Holtz 61), F. Deville (Alverdi 85), Marcel (Amodio 78), Cardoni, Posing. Subs Not Used: Felgen, Beffort, Fernandes, Thill. Booked: Cardoni.
England: Seaman, Ferdinand, P. Neville, Batty, Campbell, Southgate, Beckham, Anderton (Lee 64), Shearer, Owen, Scholes (Wright 77). Subs Not Used: Keown, Flowers, G Neville, Butt, Dublin. Booked: Beckham. Goals: Owen 19, Shearer 40 pen, Southgate 90. Att: 8,000.
Referee: S Vorgias (Greece).