Football: England's self-belief is restored

England 6 Luxembourg 0
AS A WARM-UP for a European Championship eliminator in Poland England's match against Luxembourg on Saturday was akin to going three rounds with a Teletubbie before a bare-knuckle bout with Mike Tyson.

Luxembourg were the worst visitors to Wembley for many a long year, the six-goal margin of victory was barely par.

That said, England could only beat what was in front of them and they head for Warsaw having drawn a number of positives. Most notable are the boost to Alan Shearer's confidence provided by his hat-trick and the exciting debut of Kieron Dyer.

In addition Steve McManaman showed a nose for goal-poaching not previously associated with him; David Batty was imperious in midfield; Robbie Fowler linked well around the box; Gary Neville and Michael Owen returned after injury; and Stuart Pearce looked like he had never been away.

However, there were also minuses. There were injuries to Dyer, David Beckham and Tony Adams; Beckham was only sporadically convincing in central midfield; and McManaman, his goals apart, was disappointing.

Even so, the credits still outweigh the debits for the first time since Keegan's opening match, the 3-0 win over Poland in March. It is thus a good time to meet the Poles again, on Wednesday, with England needing a win to be certain of qualifying for the play-offs as Group Five runners- up to Sweden. Should England draw they would need Sweden to beat Poland, in Stockholm, on 9 October, to go through. If England lose they are out.

"We have a good record, historically, of going to Poland and getting a decent result and we're confident we can do it again," said Shearer. Indeed, England won a World Cup qualifier in Poland two years ago and have avoided defeat in four visits during the last decade.

The match in Chorzow two years ago is the relevant one and Keegan was heartened by the performances of two players who were central to England's win that day, Shearer and Batty.

Shearer has had a lot of criticism recently, much of it deserved but much, also not taking into account the poor service he has received for club and country. His powers are on the wane but he is still a key influence and this observer has always felt he should play against Poland. That is not to say he should remain an automatic choice should England qualify for the finals, but his strength of mind and body, and his continuing composure in front of goal, will be invaluable in Warsaw and any putative play-off.

"He did everything you could expect today," said Keegan of his captain. "That was a real Alan Shearer performance. He worked the channels well, he got hold of it, I'm sure he can do just as well against Poland.

"He has lacked confidence at club level but there has been a lot of problems there. I knew he would score today, he has an amazing strength of character. I see a bit of myself in him, and a bit of Bill Shankly. He'd have held his own in our Liverpool side."

Batty has also had his critics, this observer among them, but he is playing the best football of his career not just as a destructive midfielder but as a creative one.

"He doesn't get the headlines very often because of how and where he plays but he was fantastic today," said Keegan. "Someone has to stand on the pavement and wave as the generals go by and he is a player who will sit there and not go off on ego-trips. He is crucial for the way I like my teams to play, he allows others to play."

It is Paul Scholes who is likely to get the benefit on Wednesday. Suspended on Saturday he should return in the centre especially as Jamie Redknapp failed a fitness test yesterday. Depending on which formation Keegan chooses that may see Beckham returning to the right flank - if fit.

The prognosis on him is more optimistic. Keegan, having felt he was doubtful on Saturday, said yesterday: "We took him off as a precaution when he felt his thigh tighten but he was bullish about his chances today. We are hopeful he, Tony Adams (dead leg) and Kieron Dyer (calf) will all be fit."

Dyer, who said it "brought tears to my eyes when the crowd sang my name - they never did that at Ipswich even though I was a local boy", was a great success, though Luxembourg at home is a very different proposition to Poland away. As anticipated he was given space and attacked it.

A second-minute cross by the Newcastle player had already gone begging when he drove into the box and was tripped by Marc Birsens. Shearer coolly dispatched the penalty, his fourth successful spot-kick in his last 10 internationals.

Though Fowler and Dyer were busy England still looked unbalanced until Keegan switched Parlour and McManaman to their more customary wings where, he admitted later, they looked more comfortable.

The move was followed by three goals in the next eight minutes. First Fowler set up Shearer for a typical rising shot after Beckham's clever cross (from the right flank, note). Then McManaman tapped in after Parlour, released by Fowler, crossed from the by-line. Then Shearer scored a similar goal, from Dyer's cross, to complete his first England hat-trick.

His 27th goal in his 52nd international also lifted him above Bryan Robson to sixth in the list of England goalscorers, level with David Platt and three behind Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney.

Shortly before half-time McManaman headed in Batty's cross but the expected second-half onslaught failed to materialise. The finishing was less clinical and, understandably in the heat, ball movement slower. Just as a near- capacity crowd were heading for the exit, Owen capped the day. His fine curling goal, his first for the full team at Wembley, ensured England head east today with belief restored.

Goals: Shearer (pen 11) 1-0; Shearer (27) 2-0; McManaman (29) 3-0; Shearer (33) 4-0; McManaman (44) 5-0; Owen (90) 6-0.

ENGLAND (4-4-2): Martyn (Leeds); Dyer (Newcastle), Keown (Arsenal), Adams (Arsenal), Pearce (West Ham United); McManaman (Real Madrid), Beckham (Manchester United), Batty (Leeds), Parlour (Arsenal); Fowler (Liverpool), Shearer (Newcastle United). Substitutes: G Neville (Manchester United) for Dyer h-t; P Neville (Manchester United) for Adams, 64; Owen (Liverpool) for Beckham, 64.

LUXEMBOURG (5-4-1): Felgen (Jeunesse Esch); Ferron (Etzella Ettelbruck), Funck (F91 Dudelange), Birsens (Union Luxembourg), Schauls (Jeunesse Esch), Theis (Spora Luxembourg); Saibene (Swift Hesperange), Vanek (Avenir Beggen), Schneider (CS Grevenmacher), Posing (F91 Dudelange); Christophe (FC Mondercange). Substitutes: Alverdi (CS Grevenmacher) for Schneider, h-t; Zaritski (OFI Crete) for Christophe, 61; Deville (Union Luxembourg) for Posing, 82.

Referee: S Shmolik (Belarus). Bookings: England: Pearce. Luxembourg: Funck.

Man of the match: Dyer.

Attendance: 68,772.