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Sep 2, 2006

Andorra no mountain to climb

It was in the truest tradition of amateurism, but it was also rather symbolic of the futility of the entire exercise: Andorra forgot their kit.

Perhaps it was their centre-half Ildefonso Lima took it home, forgetting he was suspended. Perhaps one of the players' wives refused to wash it. Perhaps the dog ate it.

But if England were under any illusion that this was meaningful international football, it should have been destroyed when they heard.

Andorra have more in common with 'The Dog And Duck' than Brazil or Argentina. It is a reason why the international game that should attract the biggest crowd in England over the weekend is the meeting of the South American giants at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.

The European minnows, meanwhile, were eventually grateful to a police escort - providing a perfect use of the emergency services' time - for the arrival of their shirts, shorts and socks.

By then, an alternative saviour had offered his services. Dave Whelan, the sports store magnate who has been the philanthropist behind Wigan's rise, could have been elevated to heroic status in a corner of the Pyrenees after offering to provide the replacements.

It seemed somehow fitting; a collection of players more suited to the depths of the lower leagues with an outfit last seen in the bargain bin. Instead Greater Manchester Police conveyed their regular strip to the ground and Andorra emerged wearing a kit that, arguably, was worth more than the players.

So, no one emerged with a giant label marked 'reduced'. Instead, England's oversized centre forward began, and completed, an all-too predictable rout.

A brace took Peter Crouch's international record to 10 goals in 13 games, the sort of figures that suggest a burgeoning Gerd Muller.

An alternative interpretation is that there is a long and distinguished history of English strikers feasting on the gifts offered by the weaker international sides.

Some - such as Gary Lineker - proved themselves capable of scoring against all opposition. Others - Malcolm McDonald and Luther Blissett spring to mind - have their fondest international memories framed by despairing defenders from Cyprus and Luxembourg.

Although the word 'enigma' tends to be reserved for flair players, Crouch is one; this August has yielded seven goals whereas last season, he did not score until December. Rafael Benitez's recent striking purchases indicate he may disagree but, for England, anyway, he is effective if ungainly.

His first goal, a low left-footed shot, may have been saved by superior goalkeepers than Jesus Luis Alvarez. His second, a fine header from substitute Aaron Lennon's cross, is the sort of goal that, with his height, Crouch's critics feel he should score more often. Steve McClaren's eulogy to him, however, went further than most expected. 'Peter Crouch is phenomenal,' he said.

'He's got an unbelievable record. I've got to praise the service - crosses from [Stewart] Downing and [Steven] Gerrard. When you're scoring goals at the rate he's scoring, you need him in your team. He's a team player and that's what I love about Peter Crouch. We do the stats and consistently Peter Crouch runs the most out of anybody on the pitch.'

It was a match to massage players' individual statistics and Jermain Defoe, to the relief of his admirers, obliged. A record of one goal in 17 previous internationals provided an instant rebuttal to suggestions he is a natural goalscorer, even if his starts for England were very much a rarity. Granted the chance to partner Crouch, he claimed the assist for his fellow forward's first and, clinically, scored a brace of his own.

Both were supplied by England's ersatz right winger. Such was Gerrard's domination on his flank that his marker Javier Sanchez was removed at half-time to spare him further punishment.

He may have been suffering from, in Paddy Crerand's famous metaphor, twisted blood, after the jinking Gerrard baffled him before crossing for Defoe's to volley in a first goal for England since he struck against Poland two years ago. From another Gerrard cross, Defoe eluded the Andorran defence to drill his shot in.

Before either, Gerrard had struck with an unstoppable rising drive after the hapless Sanchez misjudged Ashley Cole's deep cross. Owen Hargreaves, who struck the upright twice with fine long-range shots, almost added his name to the scoresheet. But, though he and Gerrard excelled, McClaren rejected suggestions it was simple.

'Far from it,' he said, though it is hard to think of easier opposition. Even 'The Dog And Duck'.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - Another tour de force from the Liverpool captain. For all David Beckham's set-piece expertise, he is not England's finest right-sided midfielder.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: It was marred by some outrageous attempts at timewasting by Andorrans who appeared more injury-prone than Darren Anderton and Chris Kirkland combined, If they didn't want to play the game, they should have just said.

ENGLAND VERDICT: Judge them when they face better opposition and - given qualifying has been a recent strength - when they do so in a major tournament. Getting carried away by this kind of one-sided match serves little purpose.

ANDORRA VERDICT: Their formation may have been 5-2-2-1 - it veered into a progressive 5-5-0 at times - though it scarcely seemed to matter. There were indications of how they had acquired such a dreadful disciplinary record in World Cup qualifying and, unlike many of the minnows, they may make few friends on this campaign.


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