England go a goal down before roaring back to get a vital three points against S
England go a goal down before roaring back to get a vital three points against Slovakia. Skipper Michael Owen is the hero, scoring both goals in the 2-1 win....
Just think, where would we be without Michael Owen? Then again, it doesn't bear thinking about. Not for the first time tonight, Michael was England's saviour, firing both goals to give England a win that had seemed improbable after a disjointed first half display had seen England fall a goal behind.
In bright sunshine and with reports coming in that Macedonia were leading Turkey 2-1 at half-time, everything seemed set fair at kick-off. The Middlesbrough crowd created a fantastic atmosphere and England responded with a swift opening.
Within the first minute, Gerrard slid through a perfectly weighted ball for Owen to stride onto. The skipper powered forward and, from a position very similar to the one he had scored from against Brazil in the World Cup, he fired in an effort that Konig only just managed to keep out.
In attack, you sensed that the all Merseyside combination of Owen and Rooney had the potential to cause pandemonium in the Slovakian defence while, in the midfield, a couple of sumptuous tackles from Steven Gerrard helped to set an urgent tone for his team-mates.
But, as the game settled, so did Slovakia. David James was forced into a fine block on fourteen minutes after Vittek had somehow got far too much space behind England's backline to arrow in a volley.
With England struggling to find any defensive cohesion, Slovakia worked a couple of promising situations for themselves but their finishing was not of the same standard as their approach play.
As it turned out, their opening goal came not so much from a shot as from a cross. Janocko curled in one of those angled free-kicks that cause havoc for a defence. As it bent towards the goal, a cluster of players vied to get a touch but, in the event, it eluded everyone, including David James, and spun into the far corner of the net.
At that stage, England were rocked back on their heels and it could have been far worse. A swift Slovak breakaway tore right through the heart of the England defence and it looked for all the world as though they would get their second when the ball fell to an unmarked Igor Demo on the edge of the area. His dragged shot was poor to say the least.
Nemeth too, on his home ground, found a remarkably clear opportunity to get one of the most treasured goals of his career. Fortunately, he found the side rather than the back of his net.
Though Owen was himself finding space and opportunities as the other end, Sven must have been hoping to get his side into the break with only a one-goal disadvantage.
Even before the break, though, the England coach took decisive action by withdrawing Danny Mills, and reverting to a conventional four in the midfield with Hargreaves on the right flank and Gerrard moving inside to replace Phil Neville who dropped to full back. Things were not going to plan and Sven could see that.
The second half was an entirely different story. England's lethargy seeped away, replaced by a maelstrom of attacking intent. Where there was discord previously there was now rhythm.
Inspired by the positive support swilling around the Riverside, England came out brightly and, after his wonderful slaloming run, Steven Gerrard would have brought the house down had his reverse chip gone under, rather than over, the bar.
Sven also threw on the hero from the Turkey match, Darius Vassell, for a little more pace upfront and suddenly England were on a roll.
Ever the man to sense an opportunity, Michael Owen knew this was the time to go for it. Picking up the ball on the hour, he wriggled past three defenders and was heading for goal when he was sandwiched by two Slovakian defenders. The referee had no hesitation in pointing to spot and Michael had no hesitation in dispatching the resulting penalty.
He showed amazing coolness and confidence in waiting for Konig to commit himself before rolling the ball past him. The boy has nerves of steel.
England did not take their foot off the pedal. Petras looked to be all over Southgate from a corner but referee Stark refused to award a second penalty so soon after the first. Then Frank Lampard went agonisingly close after he'd manoeuvred an excellent position for himself inside the box.
The same player then had the ball in the net, only to see his close range tap-in on 67 minutes strangely disallowed for offside.
England were at their incisive best and the Slovaks simply couldn't cope. And, when Gerrard cut inside on 72 minutes to chip a silky cross onto Owen's head, you just knew it had to go in. Michael hung in the air before flashing his header past Konig at his near post.
The goal machine now has 22 strikes from his 50 international caps.
It was quite a comeback tonight and Sven's tactical substitutions played a significant part. Hargreaves' introduction allowed the inspirational Steven Gerrard to affect the game to a far greater degree by moving into the centre while Slovakia had no answer to Darius Vassell's raw pace. The Villa man is becoming quite the super-sub.
The victory could even have been by a greater margin. Owen hit the bar while both Gerrard and Hargreaves were unable to convert clear one-on-ones at the death. The three points, though, was the only statistic worth noting.
There has been a lot of talk about Michael Owen this week. The captaincy, the records, this being his fiftieth cap all combined to make him the player around which the match revolved. And how Michael rose to the occasion.
Stripping away the hype, Sven said this of his star striker: "I never take Michael Owen for granted. When you have him, you will always score goals."
In terms of qualification for Portugal, it looks increasingly inevitable that everything will hinge on that massive game in Turkey in October. It's a comforting thought to know that Michael Owen will be on our side.
From Daniel Freedman at The Riverside Stadium
England: James; Mills (Hargreaves 43), Upson, Southgate, A Cole; P Neville, Gerrard, Scholes, Lampard; Rooney (Vassell 57), Owen
Subs not used: Robinson, Bridge, Terry, J Cole, Heskey
Slovakia: Konig; Petras, Hanek, Zeman, Zabavnik; Demo (Mintal 55), Labant (Debnar 39), Vittek, Michalik; Nemeth (Reiter 75), Janocko
Subs not used: Rzeszoto, Karhan, Kisel, Kozlej
Booked: Hanek, Vittek, Debnar
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (Ger)
Assistant Referees: Carsten Kadach, Sonke Glindemann (Ger)
Fourth Official: Florian Meyer (Ger)