Football: England's fate hangs by thread

Euro 2000: Batty dismissal compounds Keegan's misery as impotent strikeforce are thwarted by Poles; Poland 0 England 0 Attendance: 14,000

SEEING AS England's footballers struggle to last 90 minutes these days without one of them losing their head and being sent for an early exit, one can only imagine what purgatory awaits them over the next 30 days. That is how long Kevin Keegan's team, who last night suffered their third dismissal in eight qualification matches, will have to wait to discover whether they will be offered a place at the bar in the European Championship's last-chance saloon.

Only a Swedish victory over Poland, who last night withstood England with a mixture of fortune and fortitude, in Stockholm on 9 October, will allow England to sneak into the two-legged November play-offs. Should they reach them, David Batty will not be there, having become the fourth England player to be sent off in 15 months. And this, after four dismissals in the previous 128 years.

Batty's red card was not the only note of shame on another grim night for the national game. In front of Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, football's world governing body, there was yet another outbreak of hooliganism. The authorities were negligent, and the Poles the aggressors, but the English were no angels.

The violence was not the only aspect of a night reminiscent of Rotterdam six years ago, the last occasion England failed to qualify for a major tournament. Then, as England lost to the Dutch and missed out on the World Cup, it was tempting to blame the referee, Herr Assenmacher. Had Gunter Benko, last night's official, seen two penalties as clearly as the television cameras for trips on Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes, England would now be planning to spend next summer in the Netherlands and Belgium.

However, he was no more in error than England's forwards, who missed three decent chances - two of which fell to Robbie Fowler and one to Steve McManaman - to clinch a play-off place.

Fowler had been preferred to Michael Owen and Gary Neville to Kieron Dyer in an England side showing, like the Poles, five changes to the match in March, won by England 3-1, and the early exchanges were equally different. Keegan instructed his team to seize the initiative as they had at Wembley but were quickly pushed back, with Poland winning a series of corners and free-kicks. However, with Tomasz Iwan and Tomasz Hajto blazing over, and Miroslaw Trzeciak drifting a shot wide, Nigel Martyn was untroubled by the early pressure.

England's evident uncertainty was increased when Gary Neville went down with what appeared to be a recurrence of a groin injury and was replaced by his brother, Phil. As the defence reorganised, Martin Keown was booked for clumping Trzeciak but the punishment was almost far more severe as Scholes and Batty rose together to meet Iwan's floated free-kick and the latter inadvertently flicked the ball on to the far post.

Gradually, England lifted the siege and, shortly before the half-hour, created two good chances. Both came from Phil Neville crosses to Fowler. From the first, unmarked, the striker headed unforgivably wide; the second, Fowler flicked on to Steve McManaman but, given a clear sight at goal, his shot was far too weak.

England, with McManaman roaming, continued to control the midfield and thought they had forced a breakthrough when Shearer, bursting into the box, was brought down by Tomasz Klos. Although Shearer appeared to be running out of space to shoot it was a clear foul, yet a corner was given. That came to naught but from the next, a minute before the break, Rafal Siadaczka blocked Fowler's shot on the line.

The Poles were late out for the second half, an old trick but one that looked to have worked when England allowed Radoslaw Gilewicz to drift behind the defence. He dallied, Keown caught him, and England were reprieved. The visitors responded but Fowler, having shown good movement, failed to control Phil Neville's pass. Then Scholes, turning Klos, was tripped. Again Benko refused to give a penalty; again television replays suggested he was wrong.

The tension of the occasion had been building all day, exacerbated by some sporadic fighting on Tuesday night, apparently between consenting gangs. A heavy police presence had prevented any repeat of the disturbances but, now, trouble broke out in the stands. The Polish supporters, unhindered by police, had been firing flares into the English end for 10 minutes. Never ones to shirk a challenge the English support reacted by breaking through a fence. Only then did the riot police belatedly move in to restore order.

On the pitch, parts of which were now obscured by smoke, the match had opened up with play switching from end to end. Gilewicz, again, wasted a one-on-one chance, Martyn saving at his feet, and the Pole was promptly substituted.

England's reply was to play their hoped-for trump card. Enter Michael Owen, who did have a shot, but was off-balance and the ball flew well over. The same fate befell a late Beckham effort. In between Batty, having elbowed one Pole, launched himself into another, Radoslaw Michalski. The referee simply produced a red card and Batty headed into the darkness of the tunnel. A similar oblivion awaits his team-mates.

POLAND (3-5-2): Matysek (Bayer Leverkusen); Klos (Auxerre), Zielinski (Legia Warsaw), Waldoch (Schalke 04); Hajto (MSV Duisburg), Nowak (VfL Wolfsburg), Iwan (PSV Eindhoven), Michalski (Widzew Lodz), Siadaczka (Austria Vienna); Gilewicz (Tirol Innsbruck), Trzeciak (Osasuna). Substitutes: Swierczewski (Bastia) for Iwan, 60; Juskowiak (VfL Wolfsburg) for Gilewicz, 64; Bak (Lyon) for Klos, 90.

ENGLAND (4-4-2): Martyn (Leeds United); G Neville (Manchester United), Keown (Arsenal), Adams (Arsenal), Pearce (West Ham United); Beckham, Scholes (both Manchester United), Batty (Leeds United), McManaman (Real Madrid); Shearer (Newcastle United), Fowler (Liverpool). Substitutes: P Neville (Manchester United) for G Neville, 12; Owen (Liverpool) for Fowler, 66; Dyer (Newcastle United) for McManaman, 80.

Referee: G Benko (Austria).

ENGLAND DISMISSALS

Alan Mullery v Yugoslavia (Florence, European Championship, June 1968)

Alan Ball v Poland (Chorzow, World Cup qualifier, June 1973)

Trevor Cherry v Argentina (Buenos Aires, friendly, June 1977)

Ray Wilkins v Morocco (Monterrey, World Cup finals, June 1986)

David Beckham v Argentina (St- Etienne, World Cup finals, June 1998)

Paul Ince v Sweden (Stockholm, Euro 2000 qualifier, Sept 1998)

Paul Scholes v Sweden (Wembley, Euro 2000 qualifier, June 1999)

David Batty v Poland (Warsaw, Euro 2000 qualifier, Sept 1999)

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