Football: Keegan has a job on his hands

England 0 Sweden 0 Attendance: 75,824
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE HONEYMOON is over. For Kevin Keegan, who declared only on Friday, "I'd just like it to last a bit longer. I don't want to fly back early," his betrothal to England has hit the first signs of trouble with this draw that virtually ensures their nemesis, Sweden, progress to next year's European Championship finals.

Keegan will have to sweat on it. For the first time since suceeding Glenn Hoddle, the England coach is having to confront adversity, and the criticism that will inevitably ensue, before his men can purge it from their systems against Bulgaria in three days' time. The Swedes made a turnip out of Graham Taylor; yesterday Tommy Soderberg's team made Kevin Keegan, well, mortal, after an hysterical prelude to this Group Five contest.

Last weekend, Sweden warbled their way to victory in last weekend's Eurovision song contest. Yesterday, there were nul points for style as they maintained their lead in this European conflict, but every plaudit for aggression and composure, particularly from a defence who comfortably negated Alan Shearer and Andy Cole.

On the day that Alan Shearer won his 50th cap, there was to be no restoration of his powers at international level. He has now scored only once since the opening goal of the present qualifying campaign, and that was against Luxembourg. Cole appeared to have left his form back in Manchester.

There was something of deja vu about it all, as the mind wandered back from a vital qualifier at a blustery Wembley to a warm night at Saint- Etienne last June and crucial game against Argentina. Last time, it was David Beckham the culprit. On this occasion, it was his United colleague Paul Scholes who incurred the referee's wrath, though the only debate will be how he survived that long.

Perhaps taking Kevin Keegan's cry to "drop hand-grenades" a little too literally, he dispatched wayward tackles like a frenzied guerilla and paid the heftiest of prices six minutes into the second period when - with the referee ringside - he felled Stefan Schwarz, after having already been cautioned for a foul on the same player.

It left England having to tread a cautious line between seeking the victory they so desperately needed, and not submitting to the calamity of a defeat.

Much had been made about the vibrancy that runs through English football in the aftermath of Manchester United's success. The feel-good factor lasted no more than 10 minutes, by which time an Arsenal player and a former Gunner had asserted themselves on this game. It began with sun blazing down on a host of flags of St George, and ended with a drizzle and a dispirited England camp. But in the intervening moments the former Highbury favourite Stefan Schwartz, now with Valencia, and the dashing Fredrik Ljungberg conspired to bring the worst out of England, in every sense.

Ljungberg could have made it even worse for Keegan, and nobody could have complained. His 76th minute free kick was seemingly perfectly struck, but Daviid Seaman contrived to turn the ball against the bar, and thence around the post.

Sweden captain Patrick Andersson thought that England would be too predictable and he was absolutely correct as crosses rained in to no-one in particular and were duly headed clear. At the other end were two men who feel no need to play in the Premiership - Henrik Larrson, who harvests goals in Scotland like crops of genetically-modified soya, and Kennet Andersson of Bologna. Together they wreaked havoc in the home defence, and illustrated that the current self-congratulatory tone of the English elite league might be a trifle overstated.

Sweden's plans to counter the threat from England were thrown in disarray as early as the first minute when the redoubtable IFK Gothenburg midfielder Hakan Mild went into a tackle with Scholes and emerged with a bloody, stud-sized puncture in his right thigh. After five minutes' treatment, Tommy Soderberg was forced to substitute a crucial member of his team, bringing on Niclas Alexandersson.

Spanish referee J. Garcia-Aranda Encinar is evidently an advocate of allowing the game to flow, though his benign attitude towards several unpleasant challenges from both sides in the early minutes caused many raised eyebrows. It was not until the 27th minute that he brandished his first yellow card, to Scholes for a foul on Stefan Schwarz. The Manchester United man had been playing like a man possessed with the desire to incapacitate his opponents and the booking was considerably overdue.

The injury to Mild did not appear to distract the Swedes, whose poise ensured that Keegan's men suffered a frustrating half on the offensive and an uncomfortable time within their rearguard. Henrik Larsson and Kennet Andersson gave Sol Campbell and Martin Keown a torrid time in the air, until the Arsenal defender departed injured after 34 minutes, to be replaced by Rio Ferdinand.

By then, Sweden had created and spurned three chances, the best of which when the excellent Ljungberg, being watched by his Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, crossed for Larsson to head wide. The Gunners' midfelder also invited Johan Mjallby to test Seaman with a splendid piece of footwork, clipping the ball over a defender's head, but the Celtic player saw his shot cannon off Philip Neville for a corner.

Beckham had caused some discomfort with his impeccable crosses, but it was 40 minutes before England gave Magnus Hedman real cause for concern. Shearer burst through the middle, limbs pumping and Wembley roaring, but the cheers died as he played the ball left to Andy Cole who squandered the opportunity. The England captain himself might have given a flattering edge to the scoreline in added time, when Beckham's cross was only half cleared by Patrik Andersson, but, typical of England's first half, he drove the ball over Hedman's bar.

Keegan's midfield was looking decidedly rough-hewn at the break, but it was Graeme Le Saux that he removed at the break, entrusting Michael Gray to conjure something from the left. He added little, however, and by the end England were reduced to aimless crosses that yielded nothing.