Football: Polish verve counters English grit

Euro 2000 qualifier: Keegan's men unable to establish midfield control in face of home team's impressive self-belief
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The Independent Online
THEY ARE building a Marks and Spencer store in the shadow of Warsaw's Palace of Culture, a monument to the Stalinist era. In today's free-market world, that is probably the equivalent of parking your tanks on someone's lawn. England's footballers came nowhere near that degree of success in the Legia stadium last night, and will leave Poland this morning knowing that they have all but forfeited their chance of appearing in the European Championship finals next summer.

Poland fought for their goalless draw with enough passion to suggest that they are quite capable of achieving a further point in Stockholm against a Swedish side who have already ensured their presence in the finals. England's fate was in the players' own hands last night, but they failed to seize the moment. The optimism aroused by last weekend's victory evaporated under the attentions of the Poles, who are by no means an outstanding side but, on the night, gave far better than they got. England will claim with some justification to have been denied two legitimate penalties, but they made precious few genuine chances otherwise and David Batty's dismissal added an unpleasant stain to an already unsatisfactory night.

The noise in the modest stadium before the kick-off was genial rather than intimidating, the Polish crowd applauding the English anthem. Sepp Blatter, the president of the world game's governing body, Fifa, and Michael Platini, his aide, were present, presumably checking up on the behaviour of the visiting supporters in the light of England's bid for the 2006 World Cup. They will not have been impressed by some of the things they saw during the second half, when flares aimed at the England fans provoked outbreaks of fighting. It was not hard to imagine the sighs of relief in Amsterdam and Bruges as England's chances of qualification receded.

Any of England's fans - or the players, come to that - who had been basking in the afterglow of Saturday afternoon's stroll in the Wembley sunshine were rudely awakened within seconds of the kick-off. Poland, it was clear, considered themselves equally worthy of a place in the play-offs, and tore into England with impressive verve.

The setting certainly added to the atmosphere. The Legia stadium is a museum piece. Inaugurated in 1930 with a match against Barcelona, it survived the war despite being used as an SS post. Trenches were dug across the pitch in 1945, when it was the scene of hand to hand fighting. The single covered stand was erected in the early Sixties, and had been hastily refurbished for last night's match, although new seats could not disguise the crumbling concrete of the main edifice.

Poland's footballers looked far from dilapidated, however, and their willingness to seize the initiative prevented England from establishing a coherent pattern in midfield. Paul Scholes found himself playing behind Batty, which was hardly the intention, while David Beckham and Steve McManaman faced resolute markers on the flanks. The England defence was looking anxious every time the Poles broke forward and it was significant that when Gary Neville left the field in the 13th minute, Kevin Keegan chose to replace him with his brother, Philip, rather than with Kieron Dyer, who made such a remarkable impact in attack on Saturday but whose defensive capabilities went untested by Luxembourg.

The intensity of the contest expressed itself in several physical confrontations, including a running battle between Beckham and Tomasz Iwan, which began with a series of niggling exchanges and almost flared into something worse when Iwan went down clutching his stomach in the centre circle as Beckham ran past him. Beckham was clearly in a combative mood - not necessarily a good sign, given his record.

Relying on grit and persistence rather than finesse, England began to make headway as the Polish storm lost some of its intensity. The first of two plausible penalty claims came from Alan Shearer, otherwise anonymous, who was heading for goal when Tomasz Waldoch took his legs without touching the ball. Had Shearer been quicker off the mark and more precise with his first touch, however, he might have made more of the chance before the challenge arrived. The second claim was on behalf of Paul Scholes, whose foot was caught by Tomasz Hajto as the Manchester United man made a rare incursion into the penalty area. For both players, the days of Wembley hat-tricks seemed far away.

Poland resumed by reviving their attacking endeavours, while their fans in the stand bordering the Vistula River staged their own offensive by sending crimson flares arcing into the England fans gathered on the south curve. Within a minute, battle had been joined between the two sets of supporters who, separated only by a high fence, pelted each other with bottles and broken seats. Eventually the police made an appearance, intent on shielding the visiting fans rather than doing anything to deter their own people. The visors of hundreds more could be seen, waiting behind the stand.

While England's attack did nothing to distinguish itself, the veterans at the heart of the defence had no reason to reproach themselves. Stuart Pearce and Tony Adams both made important interceptions, and Nigel Martyn kept England in the game with a brave block at the feet of Radoslaw Gilewicz. But there was never much of a sense of defence being used as a springboard for attack.

When Michael Owen was brought on in place of Robbie Fowler with 25 minutes left, there was a sense that the last card was being being played, although perhaps the subsequent arrival of Dyer on the left wing was the truest sign of desperation. In the end, too many of the men Shearer had described on the eve of the match as "superstars" - Beckham, Scholes, Fowler, McManaman, and by implication Shearer himself - had failed to answer the call and live up to their reputations. English football may pay the price of that failure for some time to come.

ENGLAND MAN FOR MAN By Guy Hodgson

NIGEL MARTYN

After the easiest pay day of his life on Saturday, he was far busier and the best compliment you can pay him is that David Seaman was not missed. Unflustered and efficient in everything he did.

Rating 7 out of 10

GARY NEVILLE

Began uncomfortably but was improving when he had to leave the field with a groin injury after 12 minutes. His only compensation on a forgettable night was an extended run-out for his brother Phil.

6

MARTIN KEOWN

Deservedly booked for the first time in the competition for a woeful first-half late lunge, he regained his composure and formed a formidable defensive partnership with his club-mate Adams. 7

TONY ADAMS

The best England player on the pitch. Won every ball in the air, crashed into tackles and led the rearguard by typically robust example. And this before he is fully match fit.

8

STUART PEARCE

The mane may be grey and mangy but at 37 Pearce is still the lion of England. Provided an old head when it was needed in the early stages and moved infield to make several important interceptions later in the game.

7

DAVID BECKHAM

Barely got a touch in the first 25 minutes but improved throughout, although he personified England's performance in promising more than he delivered. Crucially, his crossing from the right was restricted. 7

PAUL SCHOLES

The grenades on Kevin Keegan's wish list were left unused in the box. Worked hard, but going forward he was largely anonymous although a rare piece of trickery should have gained a penalty.

6

DAVID BATTY

Began with two fouls in the first three minutes and ended by emulating Alan Ball in 1973 in getting sent off in Poland. Failed to impose himself in the midfield and deserved his red card for a ridiculously late lunge.

5

STEVE McMANAMAN

Flickered on the fringes of the action, going off on occasional dribbles to little final effect. What's new? England still await a commanding performance from the enigmatic Real Madrid winger.

5

ALAN SHEARER

Strong, busy, he worked hard but the Polish defence did not give him an inch of space. The open acres of the Luxembourg rearguard were a distant dream.

6

ROBBIE FOWLER

Profiting from the attention to Shearer, he consistently lost his marker and was unfortunate not to score. Superb save denied him once, profligacy hampered him elsewhere. Should not have been substituted.

7

PHIL NEVILLE

Started nervously but surged forward with increasing confidence, producing two fine crosses that should have yielded goals. Linked well with Beckham on the right.

7

MICHAEL OWEN

The Boy Wonder proved that 20 minutes is not enough. Inevitable rustiness meant he missed his best chance. 6

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