STUTTGART, Germany — England played poorly once again and won, but Sven Goran Eriksson’s men are unlikely to get away with anymore woeful performances such as this one if they are to reach the World Cup final.
Captain David Beckham bent in a trademark free-kick from 35 meters on the hour mark as England moved past Ecuador 1-0, heading to the quarterfinals, but it was turgid stuff — following on from equally woeful displays in its first-round matches.
England coach Eriksson, however, was upbeat after the victory and deflected criticism of the performance, pointing to the struggles of other big-name sides.
“I would like to see a game where one team is not suffering,” Eriksson said. “Yesterday I saw Mexico making life very difficult for Argentina. . . . If you expect to be seeing a team dominate with 20 or so chances, you are in the wrong place.”
England will play Portugal in their quarterfinal in Gelsenkirchen on Saturday, and Eriksson promised a much-improved performance against a side that knocked England out of the 2004 European Championships on penalties at the same stage.
“We can play better, but the four games we have played we are playing better and better and better, but the best is yet to come,” he said. “We should have scored more goals in the second half, but I am confident — we have six days now before the quarterfinal. I always said we will do better than four years ago.”
With injured striker Michael Owen already back in England watching the rest of the tournament on television, Eriksson has had to tinker with his troops. Against Ecuador he chose a 4-5-1 formation with Wayne Rooney as a lone striker and Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard pushing forward in support. Michael Carrick was brought in as a holding midfielder.
The rearrangement did little to improve England’s wretched form, and it made for uncomfortable viewing. All too often passes were misplaced, the ball miscontrolled, and world-class players like Gerrard and Lampard gave the impression that they had met for the first time that morning.
Even a dependable character like central defender John Terry was at sixes-and-sevens. His poor header on 11 minutes fell to Carlos Tenorio and he couldn’t believe his luck at only having ‘keeper Paul Robinson to beat, but the striker took an age to pick his spot and his shot was deflected onto the bar by a backtracking Ashley Cole.
It was a huge let off and Eriksson admitted that Cole had saved England, while Terry was relieved the Arsenal fullback spared his blushes.
“The lads were patting him on the back after the game,” said Terry. “It was a fantastic stop.”
The Ecuadorians had the starting XI that was chosen for their 3-0 win over Costa Rica that put them into the second round and their lively one-touch passing game highlighted to an even greater degree England’s deficiencies.
The English soon contrived to drag the Ecuadorians down to their level, though, and before long both teams were as inept as the other. If it had been a boxing match, the referee would have taken points off both for lack of adventure.
But when it seemed as though it couldn’t get any more boring, Beckham whipped in a free-kick on 60 minutes that clipped both the right-hand post and ‘keeper Cristian Mora ‘s fingers before nestling in the net.
Moments later a combination of the heat and a slight illness saw Beckham vomit on the pitch, but England’s captain battled on gamely making vital interceptions before being replaced by Aaron Lennon near the end.
Beckham’s goal means he is the first England player to score at three World Cups. He converted a similar free-kick against Colombia in 1998 and scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot against Argentina in Sapporo in 2002.
Tellingly, it was only his 17th goal in 93 internationals, which perhaps goes to show that the Real Madrid man can be relied upon to rise to the occasion.
“He is maybe the best player at set pieces in the world,” said Eriksson.
After the excitement of the goal, the game once more fell away. A sigh of relief greeted the final whistle, both the England win and end to the torturous display from both teams welcomed.
Of the 52,000 fans in the sold-out Gottlieb-Daimler Stadion, the vast majority was wearing the white and red of England. National anthem “God Save the Queen,” and “Rule Brittania” were repeatedly belted out by the jovial fans during the game, although many English refused to take part in the “Mexican Wave” that went around the stadium at one point. The Ecuadorians whistled at them for being spoilsports.
At the end of the game, the England fans were just happy to be in the quarterfinals, though, and sang “Three Lions,” the popular song with the refrain “Football’s Coming Home” that was England’s theme tune of the 1996 European Championships.
An estimated 50,000 England fans came to Stuttgart for the game and about 500 fans, nearly all English, were arrested on Saturday night after bottles and chairs were thrown at German fans and police. There also was sporadic fighting between rival sets of fans after German fans had watched their country’s game against Sweden.
There was no immediate news of fan trouble after the game, but police sirens sounded throughout Sunday night.