England's B team lost 2-1 to Belarus on a night marred by an injury to Robert Green.
Sven Goran Eriksson's side, the first B team to take the field for eight years, started the game brightly but fell apart after the break to dent the confidence of a nation ahead of the World Cup.
From the outset it was clear that England's youngsters, who could be set for a summer of bench warming, would relish their moment in the limelight and were determined to catch the eye of Eriksson.
The undoubted star of the first half was Aaron Lennon, whose pace and dribbling ability terrified the living daylights out of Alexander Yurevich, but all the players were clearly enjoying playing against a poor Belarus outfit.
Michael Owen almost celebrated his return to action within minutes when he latched on to Michael Carrick's clever pass, but his goalscoring instincts took over when he would have better served squaring the ball to Peter Crouch, and his shot was smartly saved by Yury Zhevnov.
Soon after England did have the ball in the net when Crouch turned in Lennon's cross following more good work from the Tottenham winger, but he was clearly offside and the goal was rightly disallowed.
Crouch saw a long-range volley comfortably held by Zhevnov and Lennon floated an effort just over as the home side homed in an opener, while Sol Campbell was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty after being tugged down by Dmitry Lentsevich.
At the back England were less assured, and surprisingly it was the more experienced duo of Campbell and Jamie Carragher who were looking the most nervous.
David James was relatively untroubled early on, but did have to be alert when Timofel Kalachev unleashed a left foot drive from outside the area.
Owen Hargreaves, incidentally, provided further evidence that he was not a viable alternative to Gary Neville at right back by regularly neglecting his defensive responsibilities, but Ashley Cole appeared to be back to his fittest on the opposite flank, bombing forward to support the dangerous Downing.
It was the Middlesbrough flyer who created the first goal of the night after 35 minutes with a superb curling free kick from the left. Owen was yards offside when the ball was kicked but nevertheless flicked his neck strongly to crash a powerful header against the crossbar. Jermaine Jenas, hitherto the least conspicuous member of the midfield quartet, reacted quickly to head into an empty net.
Belarus responded well though and almost got back on level terms in the closing seconds of the first half when a corner from Maksim Romashchenko was turned against the post by Vitaly Kutuzov.
Goalkeeper Green was introduced at half time but only lasted five minutes before going off with a groin injury.
Having only just escaped embarrassment as a 35-yard free kick squirmed under his body for a corner, Green then gifted Belarus one of the most preposterous goals imaginable.
Scuffing a goal kick straight to Kutuzov, he collapsed to the floor in agony. Kutuzov was in no mood for sympathy though, and slotted in the equaliser with Green in a crumpled heap on the floor.
What the goal lacked in sportsmanship it made up for in ruthlessness, but England were far more concerned with the injury which ended Green's World Cup hopes.
England were definitely rattled and proceeded to lose possession far too easily in a shoddy ten-minute spell, before Eriksson made his move to raise the noise level at The Madejski Stadium.
In the 61st minute, Theo Walcott was brought on for Owen in perhaps the most eagerly anticipated substitution in the history of international friendlies.
The 17-year-old was desperate to make an immediate impact, but was initially chasing lost causes, albeit with eye-catching speed.
Joe Cole, another substitute, came close to restoring England's lead with an instinctive strike from six yards, but replacement keeper Vasily Khomutovsky saved well with his legs.
Belarus were reduced to ten men when Sergei Omelianchuk was sent off for two fouls in the space of a minute on Lennon, rediscovering his first half threat after a quiet start to the second.
The visitors surprisingly took the lead on 81 minutes, Sergei Kornilenko blasting his shot from the left past Scott Carson, the fifth goalkeeper of the game.
Walcott nearly made a dream debut when he connected well with a half-volley from distance, but Khomutovsky caught it securely.
There were few other alarms for the visitors as England huffed and puffed but failed to force a leveller.
They will now be hoping to get their World Cup preparations back on track against Hungary next week.
|England B||Team Statistics||Belarus|
|1||1st Half Goals||0|
|9||Shots on Target||6|
|6||Shots off Target||6|