Terry (left) wheels away in delight after scoring the winner against Ukraine
John Terry kept England firmly on course for next summer's World Cup in South Africa as his priceless late winner sank Ukraine and made it five wins out of five in their qualifying group.
Ukraine had threatened to take a point their approach barely deserved when substitute Andriy Shevchenko struck with 16 minutes left to cancel out Peter Crouch's 29th-minute volley.
England's previously flawless record in Group Six was in serious danger until captain Terry bundled in from close range after 85 minutes, getting on the end of Steven Gerrard's header from David Beckham's free-kick.
Capello "very,very happy" after win
Terry's intervention came as huge relief to England coach Fabio Capello, who had watched in frustration as his side failed to build on their first-half advantage with a performance that was lacklustre for lengthy periods.
And the importance of Terry's goal was demonstrated at the final whistle, when Capello was moved to a rare show of fist-pumping emotion as England finally claimed three vital points.
Terry's winner ensured England took another giant stride towards next summer's showpiece, but lessons must be learned from a lack of urgency and invention that was almost punished by the predatory Shevchenko.
Ukraine, while unremarkable, proved more durable than Slovakia did in the 4-0 friendly victory on Saturday, and England never threatened to repeat that impressive showing.
It is sign of the growing belief under Capello, however, that England were able to pull out the victory after being stunned by Shevchenko's leveller.
Crouch scored in the first half with an acrobatic volley
Gerrard and Wayne Rooney were the pick of England's players against Slovakia - and they picked up where they left off to almost create an opener after six minutes.
The pair linked superbly on the edge of the area, and Rooney's spectacular bicycle kick landed just over the top with Ukraine keeper Andrii Piatov beaten.
Gerrard posted England's next threat with a trademark low free-kick from 20 yards that was again only inches off target.
England - and indeed Wembley - had become subdued after a lively start, but the mood was lifted when Crouch ended the stalemate after 29 minutes.
Terry headed Frank Lampard's corner into the six-yard box and Crouch completed the job with powerful volley that got a touch off Piatov's head but still went in.
Massive win for us - Terry
Ukraine's attacking ambition was strictly limited, but England were given an anxious moment when Anatoliy Tymoschuk's dipping volley was blocked in uncertain fashion by keeper David James.
Rooney was once more at the heart of most of England's good things, and he almost caught Piatov by surprise three minutes after the break with a speculative shot that flew just wide.
Capello and his Ukraine counterpart Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko both made changes near the hour, with Beckham replacing Aaron Lennon and Shevchenko coming on for Andriy Voronin.
It had been a disappointing night for Lennon, who once again failed to match his approach play with a final product. The Spurs winger is very much a work in progress on the international stage and this will have proved another part of his education.
Beckham had the opportunity to announce his arrival with a goal after 62 minutes when England were awarded a free-kick in his territory, but he was unable to test Piatov.
Rooney, meanwhile, was fortunate to escape punishment for a wild challenge on Oleksandr Aliiev, making contact with the ball but also following through to fell the Ukraine player.
For all England's supremacy, they had failed to press home their advantage with a second goal - and paid the penalty when Shevchenko struck with 16 minutes left.
Our patience paid off - Beckham
England failed to clear a free-kick, and when the ball rebounded off Glen Johnson, Shevchenko - a bit-part player for AC Milan this season - showed he had lost of none of the old instincts with a finish that flashed past James from 10 yards.
Capello's side had lost momentum, and he tried to inject renewed tempo into England by sending on Shaun Wright-Phillips for the tiring Crouch.
And, with time running out, captain Terry came to the rescue when he scored from six yards after Gerrard had nodded a Beckham set-piece across the area.
Not England's finest hour - but the disappointment at the overall performance will be eased with one look at a qualifying table that shows five wins out of five.
England: James, Johnson, Ferdinand (Jagielka 88), Terry, Cole, Lennon (Beckham 57), Lampard, Barry, Gerrard, Rooney, Crouch (Wright-Phillips 79). Subs Not Used: Foster, Lescott, Carrick, Agbonlahor.
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