Parting the yellow shirts of Sweden was all he was asked to do here yesterday, and while excuses galore were propounded afterwards - the sending-off of Paul Scholes, fatigue, injuries, etc, etc - it was a performance of such sweaty ordinariness produced by his men that one begins to fear for them even against an adept Bulgaria in three days' time. Poland's 2-0 victory against Bulgaria on Friday night meant that England started in third place. They will remain there unless they forage a victory in Sofia without the injured David Beckham and Martin Keown and with Paul Scholes absent after being dismissed by the Spanish referee Mr Garcia- Aranda Encinar for allowing his thirst for the occasion to frequently overcome any reason.
For the first time since succeeding Glenn Hoddle (who, it must not be forgotten, got England into the spot from which Keegan is attempting to extricate them), the England coach is having seriously to confront adversity before his men can purge it from their systems against Bulgaria. Nine months ago, defeat at the Rasunda Stadium had to be accepted in the context of Glenn Hoddle's kiss-and-tell diary and Eileen Drewery's contribution. Since then, England have transferred their faith from mysterious forces to the conjuring tricks of Keegan.
The manager enjoys his sound-bites and the moment he uttered his wish, only on Friday, that, "I'd just like my honeymoon to last a bit longer", you feared that his betrothal to England may be hit by the first signs of trouble. So it proved with this draw that virtually ensures the progress of their nemesis, Sweden, to next year's European championship finals.
Last weekend, Sweden's representatives warbled their way to victory in the Eurovision Song Contest. Yesterday, there were nul points for subtlety as their footballers maintained their lead in this particular European conflict, but every plaudit for aggression and composure, particularly from a defence that comfortably negated Alan Shearer and Andy Cole.
On the day that Shearer won his 50th cap, there was to be no restoration of his powers at international level. He has now scored only one goal since the opening goal of the qualifying campaign against Sweden. Cole, for all his tenacity, appeared to have left his form back in Manchester. If the first half was dismal, with only Shearer raising the expectancy of the England faithful with a drive that cleared Magnus Hedman's bar, the second started more propitiously. Michael Gray came on for Graeme Le Saux and there was a renewed sense of intent from Keegan's men. Yet, within six minutes it was all to fall apart. There was something of deja vu about Scholes' sending-off, as the mind tracked back from a vital qualifier at a blustery Wembley to a warm night at Saint-Etienne last June and a crucial game against Argentina. Last time, David Beckham was the culprit. On this occasion, it was his Manchester United colleague Paul Scholes who incurred the referee's wrath. Perhaps taking Kevin Keegan's cry to "drop hand-grenades" a little too literally, he dispatched wayward tackles like a frenzied guerilla, and could have been yellow or red-carded in the first minute for an horrendous-looking challenge that left Hakan Mild with a bloodied stud wound in his right thigh which ended the game for the IFK Gothenburg player. Scholes eventually paid the price when he felled Stefan Schwarz, after having been cautioned for a foul on him.
It left England having to tread a cautious line between seeking the victory they so desperately required, and not succumbing to the calamity of a defeat.
The Keegan/Manchester United feelgood factor lasted no more than 10 minutes, by which time an Arsenal bit-part 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 chillness, a drizzle and a dispirited England camp. In the intervening moments the influential Schwartz and the impish Fredrik Ljungberg conspired to bring the worst out of England, in every sense.
Ljungberg, looking as lethal as Edward Scissorhands, played by his doppleganger Johnnie Depp, 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's captain Patrick Andersson thought that England would be too predictable and he was to prove ominously correct as crosses were targeted at 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 Larsson, who harvests goals in Scotland like crops of genetically-modified soya, and Kennet Andersson of Bologna. Together, as their aerial menace constantly wrought havoc in the home defence, they showed that the current self-congratulatory tone of the English elite league might be a trifle overstated. In the first half Sweden created and spurned three chances, the best of which when Ljungberg crossed for Larsson to ghost between Sol Campbell and Keown but head wide.
By the break, Keegan's midfield diamond was looking decidedly rough-hewn, as Sherwood's passing constantly went adrift, and penetration was there none. The England coach may, sooner rather than later, have to entrust Beckham with a creative, central midfield role.
In the final minutes, England pounded the visitors' goal, without reward and without deserving one. At the end, one thought of the minute's silence which had been observed in memory of Sir Alf Ramsey. Thirty-three years on from the greatest hour of his England, it only served to emphasise the deficiencies of this one. Keegan has some job on his hands.
Andrew Longmore, Page 3
Red-faced Scots, page 2
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