Owen the hero as England do enough

Azerbaijan 0 England 1

But on a wild and windy night on a greasy pitch and amid the trickiest of conditions England did just enough to earn the tightest of 1-0 victories against lowly Azerbaijan.

For that, in a week in which David Beckham demonstrated his stupidity over that infamous yellow card trick, they had to thank a stand-in captain whose responsibility has never been in doubt in the shape of Michael Owen.

On Saturday against Wales Owen proved just how desperate he was for an international goal to ease his troubled start at Real Madrid when he all but begged to be credited with the deflected first goal which the officials handed to Frank Lampard.

Last night there was no doubt about the way he scored England's only goal with a crisp header from Ashley Cole's cross in the 22nd minute. More than that, in the absence of the suspended Beckham, he led by superb example.

Yet this was also a game which served to warn that Sven-Goran Eriksson still has much work to do to perfect the shape and balance of his side.

Despite Owen's positive contribution England found this match in the old Soviet bloc, against a side who languish at 114th in the FIFA rankings and have won only four internationals in their 50-game history, a much more uncertain affair than the no-contest against the dismal Welsh at the weekend.

There is no doubt the three-pronged attack Owen, Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney which was employed to such good effect against the Welsh gives England a vast range of options.

They look to have menace from so many more areas. They are no longer predictable. They threaten goals whenever they come forward.

But there is also a fragility in the midfield areas when they do not have the ball which could and would be exploited by the world's top teams.

It was not one of Defoe's sharpest nights and there was little surprise when he was substituted by Alan Smith in the 55th minute.

It was also a difficult match for Rooney, who was man-marked for the first time at international level and his efforts to throw off his Azerbaijan shadow saw him turn up in all sorts of unexpected corners of the pitch.

Even so Rooney still makes so many more things possible for this England side.

He can link play between midfield and strikeforce, play as an out-and-out striker, make chances and take them.

And one wonderful 50-yard raking pass which almost got Defoe in on goal was Hoddle-esque in its execution.

In short, he allows adventure where before there was caution. At times he even demonstrated his willingness for defensive duties too, though it should be said his yellow card in the 39th minute was a cameo of the best and worst of the 18-year-old.

He deserved praise for tracking the Azerbaijan winger's surge with so much determination. But the indiscipline of the mistimed tackle and the resulting niggle of temper was a concern.

There were other positives.

Rio Ferdinand again demonstrated the class you would expect from a defender voted the best at the last World Cup. Ashley Cole proved again he is a left full-back with real attacking flair.

And Newcastle's Jermaine Jenas, on his first start for his country and filling the boots of the absent Beckham, showed England have 21-year-olds in reserve with huge futures.

With four matches played England sit securely at the pinnacle of group six with trips to Cardiff and Belfast to come and then four home games to hone their formation before what is beginning to look like the formality of qualification for Germany 2006.

The force is with England and there is no more precious commodity in football than momentum.

AZERBAIJAN: Hasanzade, Hajiyev, Sadygov, Amirbekov, Shukurov, Kerimov, Emin Guliyev, Kamal Guliyev, Ponomarev, Nabiev, Aliyev.

ENGLAND: Robinson, Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Butt, Ferdinand, Campbell, Jenas, Lampard, Rooney, Owen, Defoe. Subs: King, James, Terry, Hargreaves, Joe Cole, Wright-Phillips, Smith.

Referee: Alain Hamer (Luxembourg)

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