Football: Best man overshadows the pair of newly weds

Norman Fox studies the striking partnership of Cole and Shearer
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The Independent Online
IN A week of relentless questioning, Kevin Keegan enthusiastically came up with positive answers until, finally, he was asked whether he had any idea why some attacking partnerships clicked and others just clattered discordantly. "Haven't a clue... It just happens or it doesn't."

So would it or wouldn't it for Alan Shearer and Andy Cole at Wembley? Would it be an instant marriage or a quickie divorce? Either way it was likely to be a marriage of temporary convenience because although the Shearer-Owen strikeforce may not have developed into a latter-day Lineker- Beardsley twinning, it remains a potentially golden link which will surely soon be restored. In the event yesterday, Shearer and Cole became only the decoys for the match winner, Paul Scholes.

Shearer was facing a personal challenge to overcome comparatively poor scoring form, which he failed to do, while Cole was doubly challenged to reproduce his own remarkably good club form and create opportunities for the captain. It was not Cole's natural game, which was why Keegan had reminded both players that there had to be "some give and take". Shearer was said to have understood, but everyone knows he is a reluctant giver and selfish taker, which is exactly why, at his best, he is so damn good.

He had said that his former Newcastle manager had come into the England job "like a whirlwind" and given him the incentive to recover the finishing sharpness that had made him so important against Poland on the two most recent occasions the countries had met. The fact that so far this season he had scored 15 times in 33 club matches was no mean achievement but yesterday he showed again that he is well below his best. Of greater concern this season have been his lapses into lethargy. He could not be accused of that yesterday, but the wide-awake Cole, with his record of 20 goals for Manchester United, was always the sharper of the two.

Closely shadowed by Krzysztof Ratajczyk and Tomasz Hajto respectively, Shearer and Cole's first priority was to find space for themselves, but at the same time provide openings for Scholes to reinforce their work. This they did to perfection, even within the first nervous 10 minutes, with a neat exchange of passes allowing Scholes to move quickly on to Shearer's final pass that led to England's opening goal. Instant understanding? More speed of thought by Scholes to offer himself as a target while the Poles deliberated on the more obvious threats. That was their downfall.

By their constant exchanging of places at the head of the England attack the pair of them played mind games with their markers. It worked well since Tomasz Lapinski, in the deep centre of the Polish defence, was often left watching empty space. That space Scholes continually filled. Rather than seeking out Shearer, Cole began looking for Scholes, and it was his neat quick pass that allowed David Beckham to set up Scholes's second goal, which gave England their slightly misleading, over-confident early lead.

Once the Poles had pulled back a goal and Scholes, temporarily, felt obliged to think more of supporting midfield rather than the front two, the complexion changed. Shearer began raising that now familiar question about his inability to touch and go, which used to be the secret of his danger.

Cole's pace became crucial to the need for England to establish a margin of safety, especially after both Beckham and Scholes himself were slowed by knocks. Aerial service to Shearer and Cole had never been regular so the latter needed to twist and turn, rather than leap and head. Occasionally he did so with eye-deceiving speed and it was he, rather than the increasingly predictable Shearer, who spotted and missed the chances.

Ironically, Shearer became the provider for the third goal that gave England the buffer they needed. His aerial power from Gary Neville's long throw won the ball for Scholes's hat-trick. On the day it hardly mattered whether or not England had found a new partnership. It will matter if they are to do more than merely achieve Keegan's sole responsibility for qualifying for the European finals.

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