Football: Keegan love affair turns serious

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The Independent Online
KEVIN KEEGAN today enters the third match of his reign as England manager, and the first since he was confirmed as a long-term appointment, knowing that now it is serious.

A failure to win against Sweden at Wembley this afternoon and England can forget about qualifying automatically for next summer's European Championship. They will also have left themselves with the task of probably needing to win in both Bulgaria on Wednesday and Poland in September to reach a play-off.

So far Keegan's reign has been a very jolly affair but he knows as well as anyone how quickly the mood can change. Reservations about his tactical ability, which have been suspended for the time being, will quickly resurface. "I would like the honeymoon to continue longer," he said yesterday. "I want to keep winning, that gives me the strength to keep the bandwagon rolling. We control that bandwagon, especially at Wembley, it is up to us to perform."

This emphasis on shaping your own destiny is typical Keegan and he will be drumming it into the players this afternoon. Due to his high profile it has been easy to forget that once the team are on the pitch it is down to them not him. The important thing for Keegan is to ensure his players realise that.

All week they have stressed that, if England play to potential, they should win. This is fair comment but Sweden must not be under-estimated. They have good players, technically skilled, physically tough and mentally resilient. "It'll be a battle," said Alan Shearer, who will be winning his 50th cap. "They are big strong lads and you can guarantee they'll give 100 per cent."

But Sweden, though they have Henrik Larsson and Stefan Schwarz, do not have the depth of quality that England have in players like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, David Seaman and Sol Campbell.

The red core of the England team should also be brimming with self-belief. As David Batty said: "I know the confidence that success can give you and maybe the Manchester United players can lead us through to victory."

England have not beaten Sweden in seven matches, the last win being in May 1968 - the week before Manchester United first won the European Cup. Keegan, who was cleaning boots as a Scunthorpe apprentice at the time, and later played in a forgettable 0-0 in Stockholm (he could not remember it), saw the positive side as usual: "We're a due a win, then."

However, a word of caution. There is no sense of caution in Keegan which could be dangerous. He told an anecdote himself yesterday which revealed the negatives as well as the positives. "I played Martin Keown at snooker yesterday. He said: 'I can't pot this'. I said: 'If you think you can't you won't. I always think I can pot every ball, I hate playing safety shots."

All well and good if the ball goes in but, if it does not, against a good player, Keegan would find himself sitting watching for the next five minutes as the table was cleared. This is the worry for England and the reason David Batty is as important today as Shearer.

"I've watched us in the past from the television gantry and the slow build up has frustrated me a bit," added Keegan. "I would think 'let's push forward a bit more', especially at home. You don't let people knock it about in your own backyard. People think international football should be like that, I say we should concentrate on the things we are good at."

There is much to admire in this philosophy, especially after the introspection that dogged the later years of Hoddle's reign and sapped the team's confidence - a huge factor in top level sport where, often, there is little to choose in terms of ability. However, as noted, it carries risks which is why Keegan's support network of coaches, Derek Fazackerley, Arthur Cox, Howard Wilkinson and Les Reed will have been earning their corn this week ensuring England's organisation matches their enthusiasm.

The final words will depend on Keegan. He said his parting shot in the dressing room will emphasise that "these two games in five days are important for the country, for all of us, but especially for you, the players. With the quality we have here England should be at major championships and to get there we have to win every game." England expects.

Today's Teams at wembley

ENGLAND

SEAMAN

Arsenal

P NEVILLE

Manchester Utd

CAMPBELL

Tottenham

KEOWN

Arsenal

LE SAUX

Chelsea

SCHOLES

Man Utd

BATTY

Leeds Utd

SHERWOOD

Tottenham

BECKHAM

Manchester Utd

SHEARER

Newcastle

COLE

Man Utd

SWEDEN (probable)

HEDMAN

Coventry

KAAMARK

Leicester

BJORKLUND

Valencia

P ANDERSSON

B Monchengladbach

NILSSON

Helsingborg

MJALLBY

Celtic

K ANDERSSON

Bologna

SCHWARTZ

Valencia

LARSSON

Celtic

LJUNGBERG

Arsenal

SEVSSON

Viking Stavanger

Referee: J M Garcia Aranda Encinar (Sp)

Kick-off: 3pm (Sky Sports 2)

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