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England ready for a break

After a long and tiring season England's exhausted players can disperse for their summer holidays with a certain amount of satisfaction in the knowledge that Sven Goran Eriksson's Euro 2004 qualification target is well in sight.

The England manager had always aimed to take his team to Turkey, for the final qualifying match, with a slight advantage for what will probably be a shoot-out for an automatic qualification place as Group Seven winners.

'I always said our aim must be to go to Turkey and be ahead in the group,' Eriksson said after England's 2-1 comeback victory over Slovakia at the Riverside on Wednesday.

'That will not make us calm - but it means Turkey must come out and attack because they must try to win the game. It's good to have this win - now we can have a better holiday.'

The victory keeps England two points behind group leaders Turkey, who have played an extra match, and if results go as planned - England beat Macedonia away and Liechtenstein at home, with Turkey also beating the principality - the October 11 showdown with the World Cup semi-finalists poses to be a winner-takes-all clash.

But a revitalised England will have to produce a better performance than they did against Slovakia if they are to have any hope of winning that game.

Eriksson's much hailed 4-4-2 diamond formation came a cropper against the canny Slovaks, who exploited the lack of protection for the full-backs to terrorise England's absent defence and take a deserved 1-0 lead before half-time.

England had started brightly, with Michael Owen ruing a missed chance to put England 1-0 up after only 49 seconds on his 50th appearance, but after the first few minutes the performance deteriorated.

England traded chances with the visitors as Eriksson's defence went AWOL, with the Gung-ho Ashley Cole particularly guilty, and only woeful finishing from Owen and Slovaks Robert Vittek and Igor Demo prevented a goal fest.

When Vladimir Janocko's 31st minute strike eventually broke the deadlock it was somewhat fortuitously. His curling free-kick from the left narrowly cleared all contenders for the header and bounced past James' despairing drive - he was expecting a touch from those in front of him - and into the back of the net.

The West Ham keeper must take some portion of responsibility for the goal, along with his beaten defenders, after all, had it been David Seaman between the posts the fault would have been quickly palmed off on his ageing bones.

Eriksson had seen enough and replaced Leeds' Danny Mills with Bayern Munich's Owen Hargreaves to enable a change of shape. The versatile Phil Neville slotted in on the right of defence, Gerrard became the anchor man and Hargreaves and Ashley Cole raided down the wings.

England looked far more solid and when Darius Vassell replaced the ineffective Wayne Rooney shortly after the break the home team began to dominate without finding the back of the net.

Hargreaves and Gerrard both squandered chances before Owen was sent tumbling in the box by Marian Zeman. The stand-in skipper dusted himself off to slot home a 62nd minute penalty and draw England level.

Then Chelsea's Frank Lampard had a perfectly legitimate goal ruled out for offside, on his competitive debut, as a reshaped England bossed the match.

Michael Owen celebrates scoring England's winner.
Michael Owen celebrates scoring England's winner.

A lively Owen finally headed home a Gerrard cross in the 73rd minute to give England a deserved winner and wrap up the points. The Liverpool striker could have scored a hat-trick but his late header hit the bar.

After saving Sven's skin once again Owen took the post-match plaudits, reiterated the importance of the result and then heartily insisted he was looking forward to finally putting his feet up - one month after Liverpool's final match of the domestic campaign.

'It's been a long, hard season and I'm really looking forward to having four weeks off, but no sooner do you put your feet up than it's back to pre-season training.'

At least Owen and the rest of the team can enjoy their vacations reflecting on a job, at times at least, well done.

England may have struggled past Slovakia, Liechtenstein and Macedonia but they blew away their main challengers Turkey, 2-0 at the Stadium of Light, and showed their spirit, if nothing else, in the second-half on Wednesday.

England will resume their Euro 2004 qualifying campaign in Macedonia on September 6 and thanks to this term's efforts the biggest headache during the summer break will be whether to accept the ticket allocation for the Skopje clash.

After going some way to rectify the damage some racist 'fans' caused against Turkey in Sunderland - when the FA received a record fine from UEFA - with exemplary behaviour in subsequent clashes, the FA are in two minds whether to risk trouble in Macedonia.

The FA have already decided not to accept tickets for the final qualifying clash in Turkey, and the Turks themselves may have to play behind closed doors after UEFA insisted they would investigate incidents that saw Macedonia players hit by missiles thrown from a volatile crowd in Istanbul.

So while Turkey are sweating it out and deliberating how they only squeezed past Macedonia 3-2 in thier last match, England can sit back and relax with only the usual pressure of expectation to contend with.