Football: Keegan yet to make his mark

European Championship: England fail to find winning formula despite changes of formation and tactics
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The Independent Online
YOU CAN call it flexibility, or you can call it the sort of uncertainty that has been basic to England at international level for a long time now. Kevin Keegan and his staff tried everything they knew here last night - three centre backs, a flat back four, a short-passing game, progress down the wings and even, at the death, route one - but they could not prevail over a skilful and volatile Bulgarian side. A point from a 1-1 draw preserves England's hopes of qualifying for Euro 2000 through the play-off system, but their failure to capitalise on the reduction of their rivals to 10 men after a sending-off just before the hour was less than entirely impressive.

Throughout football history, all great teams have possessed a clear structure which has served them well no matter what the circumstances or the opposition. Similarly, a great coach has a vision of how the game should be played. Keegan's first four games have confirmed what we already knew - that he favours attacking football and is always willing to throw on an extra forward when the need is pressing - but have shown us little in the way of substance. Originally contracted for these four fixtures on a part- time basis, now he heads into an indefinite future with an undefined team. Just try and guess the composition of the side that he will pick for his next match. It is an impossible challenge.

The selection that takes the field against Luxembourg on 4 September could bear as little resemblance to any of the several teams he fielded during the course of last night's match as to the one he selected to confront Sweden.

Once the fans of the two rival Sofia clubs, CSKA and Levski, had stopped abusing each other from the opposite ends of the tree-girt stadium before the kick-off last night, they were able to enjoy a ceremony honouring Hristo Stoichkov, who was making his final appearance for Bulgaria on the ground where he came to fame. At the age of 33, Stoichkov's 37 goals from 83 apppearances bear comparison with the greatest of all his country's players, Hristo Bonev, whose 47 goals and 96 caps in the 1960s remain the record figures.

Stoichkov accepted bouquets from the two men he says had most influence on his career - Dimitar Penev, the recently retired national coach, and Johan Cruyff, who took him to Barcelona. And within minutes of the start he was showing that a year in Japan has not diminished his appetite for leading his country to glory, nor his range of imperious gestures. There was a pleasing symmetry in the fact that the great man's initial burst was checked by a brisk interception by Jonathon Woodgate, a 19-year-old making his first international appearance.

The relatively complex defensive systems adopted by both teams did nothing to smother the initiative of their forwards in an enthralling opening period. England won a series of corners through the consistent application of pressure, while the Bulgarians preferred to attack on the break, depending on the clever work of the much-coveted Milen Petkov down the left and the incisive passing of Stilyan Petrov in central midfield, both of them playing on their club pitch. At the point of the attack, the speed of Hristo Yovov sounded a warning, but the pace of Stoichkov also looked threatening. When David Batty slid in to take the ball away from Stoichkov, the two hard men glared at each other and there was a flicker of lightning and a momentary rumble of thunder in the humid Balkan air.

England's three first-half bookings seemed a contradiction of Keegan's expressed desire that his players should keep their noses clean, but the opening goal was the reward for attacking initiative by Sol Campbell and Michael Gray, and Alan Shearer's supporters will have been delighted by the way he fastened on to the loose ball in the penalty area, swivelled and struck a perfect shot. That was the old Shearer. The one who kept falling foul of the referee for backing into his marker was the newer model.

But England had held their lead for less than five minutes when they paid the price for slack marking, Teddy Sheringham failing to prevent Georgi Markov reaching Stoichkov's flat, hard free-kick from the right. And their willingness to attack from the back almost put them in deeper trouble just after the half-hour, when Campbell and Woodgate were stranded upfield as Stoichkov streaked down the left on to Iliev's pass, only to slash the air with frustration as Yovov failed to meet his low cross to the far post. Given Stoichkov's celebrated lack of enthusiasm for the failings of lesser mortals, it was probably not surprising that Yovov failed to reappear at the start of the second half.

Both teams lost their coherence after the restart as the game disintegrated in a flurry of fouls, culminating in the sending off of Martin Petrov. Keegan's response was to throw on Ray Parlour and convert the defence to a back four, which on the face of it was less than fair on the departing Woodgate, whose penalty-area tackle on Petrov, after the Bulgarian had latched on to Radostin Kishishev's pass, was a highlight of the match and demonstrated the young defender's maturity and technical skill.

England's habit of giving the ball away was at the root of the best Bulgarian attacks. When Sheringham allowed himself to be robbed by Kishishev, the right wing-back made a brilliant 70-yard run which ended when Daniel Borimirov fell under a tackle in the area, with Stoichkov gesturing furiously in space on the right. It was to be the last significant act of his international career, since he left the pitch a couple of minutes later, exchanging applause with all corners of the ground as he made his final exit.

For him such nights now belong to the past. But for Keegan, who has 10 weeks in which to dream up a side to beat Luxembourg and Poland, the international scene appears to represent a future consisting of nothing but headaches. He will need all his resilience now.