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KING ARTHUR  Friday, June 07, 2002  18:48 GMT

Becks celebrates after penalty winner

The group of death it may be, but England are very much alive and kicking in Group F after a sensational night in Sapporo saw Sven's men defeat Argentina courtesy of David Beckham's first half penalty.

Once the hype had turned into action, it proved to be a game that you could not take your eyes off for a second. England needed to withstand a second half siege from Argentina to earn a victory which will be savoured long into the night by our fans who have suffered so much at the hands of Argentina in the past.

When Pierluigi Collina got the game underway, it was our opponents who settled the quicker. Batistuta charged through the first ten minutes as Argentina pressed high up the field. His aggression may have given his team a good lead but it also brought him a yellow card and sapped his energy to such an extent that he was substituted after an hour.

With the fluidity of Argentina's early play and passing unsettling England, Zanetti drove forward and tested Seaman with a swirling long range effort before a deft Batistuta flick let in Gonzalez for a shot which he flashed wide on six minutes. England's first forward forage was lead by Owen Hagreaves but the Munich man paid a heavy price, picking up a knock which forced his withdrawal on 18 minutes for Trevor Sinclair.

The Hammer took over from Scholes on the left side of midfield, allowing the Manchester United midfielder to link up with Nicky Butt who had been brought in to stiffen England in the centre. It was Butt who provided the pass of the night on 23 minutes for our first real attack. His perfectly weighted through-ball released the racing Owen who tormented Samuel before angling a shot across the slick Sapporo turf.

There were distinct echoes of St. Etienne four years ago as the stadium hushed to see where Owen's right foot effort would nestle. Although Cavallero was well-beaten, on this occasion Michael found the post rather than the roof of the net. However, the fact that we had come so close clearly gave the boys a greater belief and lead to a period of supremacy for the Three Lions.

It was Nicky Butt who was making England tick with an increasingly impressive rhythm which was only intermittently interrupted - most dangerously when Gonzalez slashed a volley over the bar on the half-hour. Then, on 42 minutes, came the move which was to ultimately settle this classic encounter.

Scholes picked out Owen with chip to the far post and the Liverpool man controlled the ball instantly before dragging it past Pochettino. The Paris St Germain defender couldn't resist a nibble as Owen skipped past and Collina had pointed to the spot before we had even had a chance to appeal. Suddenly, England were presented with a golden chance to strike ahead. David Beckham stepped up to exorcise his personal ghost of 1998 and did not take his eyes off the ball for a second as he stood, waiting to meet his destiny.

 He hammered home a scorching spot-kick straight down the middle, showing four years on how one of his kicks can really hurt, and celebrated with a joy only matched by the England fans to whom he sprinted to share his celebrations. England knew all to well that they had forged an advantage but let it slip last time out.

They were in no mood to do the same tonight. Instead the boys showed every intention of extending their lead with an explosive start to the second period. On 48 minutes Owen latched onto a flick from Heskey and beat the final man, only to see his snap-shot fire just wide. A minute later, Scholes produced one of his sensational long range volleys which dipped and swerved before Cavallero punched it to safety.

England had now hit top gear and, following more high-tempo passing interplay, could have found a second on 56 minutes. Sinclair played in Becks who had made a lung-busting run into the middle and the England captain charged through only to see his left foot strike fly wide at the last. After the draw with Sweden, Sven said that England's second half downfall had come as a direct result of not being able to retain possession.

 It was no doubt with that in mind that he sent on the old master, Teddy Sheringham, after 57 minutes. Teddy almost provided a masterpiece too, finding an audacious volley at the far post from a Scholes centre. It would have been a picture goal but again Cavallero erased that hope with another flying save to his right.

For the final twenty minutes England were subjected to incessant pressure as drove upon drove of Argentina attacks weighed in. Aimar's ferocious effort from the edge of the area set the heart racing, before Pochettino's downward header made it stop for a second until Seaman somehow got in the way. Sven even felt the need to sacrifice Owen for the last ten minutes in order to bring on Bridge to make five in the midfield.

It was a time for heroes to stand up and walk forward with their heads held high. England had a team of them. At the back Rio won every header, Sol was a giant in the tackle, and Seaman was legendary in his calmness. In the midfield Scholes was named man of the match and Butt's performance having come back from injury was startling.

Meanwhile, up front, the fear that Michael's mere presence produced in our opponents always gave us a chance of victory. Yet, just as was the case in Munich, this was a win founded on the team rather than its individuals. The togetherness that this group of players have both on and off the pitch is probably their greatest strength.

 "We played for more than a half this time," was Sven's post-match appraisal. "I think we deserved to win it. It's an extremely important victory." You may want a few more words from our manager after a victory of this magnitude in the biggest game of his career. Then again, England have beaten Argentina in the World Cup.

Enough Said:


Starting line-ups;

Argentina England
12 Pablo Cavallero 1 David Seaman
4 Mauricio Pochettino 2 Danny Mills
6 Walter Samuel 6 Sol Campbell
13 Diego Placente 5 Rio Ferdinand
8 Javier Zanetti 3 Ashley Cole
11 Juan Sebastien Veron (c) (16 Aimar, 45) 7 David Beckham (c)
14 Diego Simeone 8 Paul Scholes
3 Juan Pablo Sorin 21 Nicky Butt
9 Gabriel Batistuta (19 Crespo, 59) 11 Emile Heskey (17 Teddy Sheringham, 55)
10 Ariel Ortega 10 Michael Owen (14 Wayne Bridge, 79)
18 Kily Gonzalez (7 Lopez, 64)  18 Owen Hargreaves (4 Trevor Sinclair, 19)


Referee: Pierluigi Collina (ITA)


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