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Heskey and Owen show proves simple but effective

It was route one. It was effective. But it was not exactly what international football is meant to represent. However, in the role that Emile Heskey played in creating Michael Owen's second goal last night – from effectively nothing, a routine punt forward by Rio Ferdinand – there was an emphatic confirmation that he had earned his place back in the England fold.

If Saturday's comeback match against Israel was always going to leave lingering doubts, because of the weakness of the opponents, dominating customers as obdurate as the Russians left no argument.

As Ferdinand's ball forward dropped through the Wembley floodlights there was no way in which Heskey should have beaten Alexei Berezutsky to it. But the striker manoeuvred himself, twisted his neck and then laid the ball directly into the path of Owen, who struck it wonderfully on the half-volley for his 40th goal for his country.

Little wonder, after that moment, that Owen has championed Heskey's cause, for he himself appeared revitalised. Again. With Heskey asked to lead the line on his own for much of the match, Owen dropped off and played around him, comfortable in the knowledge that his partner would win everything in the air and more than his share on the ground.

The evidence of how Heskey has helped to transform Owen is startling. The pair go back some way – from the England Under-18 team to the Under-21s and the full national side, as well as club football at Liverpool. Their combined total of goals is impressive – 117 from 172 joint appearances when they were at Anfield, for example.

It gave a shape and balance to the England attack which might, under different circumstances, have been more easily suppressed. But, much to the obvious alarm of the Russia coach Guus Hiddink, his team, who arrived with such an impressive defensive record, appeared more than a little shell-shocked by what they faced. And not just Berezutsky but his fellow central defender Sergei Ignashevich. And as big and powerful as Heskey is, he is no larger than that pair.

But, just as against Israel, there was also the kind of Heskey miss that has so infuriated. Owen may have now struck 13 times in tandem with him – in just 13 England games – but Heskey still has only five goals in his 45 appearances. Last night, when clear on goal from Steven Gerrard's deflected flick, he steered the ball at the goalkeeper Viacheslav Malafeyev.

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It was the kind of moment that raises lingering doubts, especially about the Wigan striker's suitability to claim a starting place. But there is little question that he has earned the right to remain in the squad and his display will have provided worrying evidence for Peter Crouch that his role, although more a player of touch and technique, is facing a serious challenge.

It had been assumed, prior to Heskey's coruscating form, that Crouch would return. But Steve McClaren's decision to stick with his starting XI from the win over Israel was given a thumping vindication. Crouch eventually replaced Heskey, who had run himself to a standstill, and, for a second game running, was given a standing ovation by the England supporters. And that, in itself, was as remarkable as his recall.

Remaining fixtures: 13 Oct England v Estonia. 17 Oct Croatia v Israel; Macedonia v Andorra; Russia v England. 17 Nov Andorra v Estonia; Israel v Russia; Macedonia v Croatia. 21 Nov Andorra v Russia; England v Croatia; Israel v Macedonia.

What happens now?

England's victory last night puts them in a strong position but they still have work to do, as Croatia are all but through. A win in Russia would virtually ensure qualification, but a defeat would give the Russians control of their own destiny. England's final game against Croatia is still likely to be crucial.

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