Football: Strait-jacketed Keegan totters on gangplank

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HE'S DONE it again. In the same week that he put the mockers on England against Romania, Kevin Keegan did exactly the same to Nigeria on Sunday night.

If I was a Fulham supporter, I'd top myself now before the new season gets underway because the manager believes that "Nigeria play football the way I think it should be played!" And this was said after they'd already conceded the first goal to Denmark. When they were 4-0 down Keegan must have had to keep his delirium in check with a strait-jacket.

I can see Kev's first day of training back at Craven Cottage now. "I want the defence to be naive, the midfield to be non-existent and the attack to be powder-puff. But as long as you do a few tricks on the ball I'll be well chuffed and so will the crowd."

Keegan also emphasised the value of the family spirit which Nigeria brought into the game, and their preference for praying together. "Very important that family spirit," he purred, despite all the evidence in front of him that this particular family was more like the Simpsons than the Osmonds. Only when it became obvious that the Super Eagles were not "soaring as expected" did Keegan retreat down the gangplank he had built for himself.

"How many times have we seen two balls on the field in this World Cup, Brian?" he asked, finally posing the question that millions of viewers had on their lips as the match ball was returned from the stands with the game already back in play. I'll leave Skinner and Baddiel to revive the punch line to that one. They can also have Keegan's "joke" about "Taribo West sounds as though he's a place in Florida".

To be fair, as Big Ron says whenever he's not about to be, Keegan's instinct to rush into judgement is obviously symptomatic of the pressure on the pundits to commit themselves now that the knock-out stages are underway. The finality inherent to each match means that they can no longer hedge their bets on ifs and buts. They have to say who's going to win and suffer the consequences like the rest of us.

Ally McCoist, for instance, thought that Brazil were "brilliant" in the first half against Chile, even though they were gifted their three goals by a nervous defence. But once Brazil were genuinely brilliant in the second half, with Ronaldo scoring one goal and being close to another two, this left Ally nowhere to go, but down a blind alley. Equally on Sunday Alan "I'm here to have doubts" Hansen, rubbished the French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez and pointed to their absence of strikers. A couple of hours later, Barthez hadn't been beaten and the French had scored their 10th goal in four matches. "Italy will beat them now," Hansen said with a scowl, putting himself into further jeopardy for later in the week.

If the pressure from the studio experts is showing, the commentators are cracking up already. David Pleat, who pitches his sentences with a rising intonation in order to suggest excitement, is starting to gush like a burst pipe. He has picked out Brazil's Junior Baiano for "having the worst feet, in the nicest possible way, in the team."

On Sunday Paraguay had a defender who "dissolved that problem immediately". Indeed such was Pleat's passion for the Paraguayans that it wouldn't be a total surprise to see a few of them turn up at White Hart Lane next season, and I don't mean playing the pan pipes outside.

They had got their tactics spot on, according to Pleat, by "setting out their stall", in the fashion of a French lorry drivers' blockage. While this may have been a whizz for all the watching coaches, especially those connected with the Spurs defence, it reduced the spectacle to a one-way street as far as the football was concerned.

Fortunately, after two goalless draws and a win donated by Nigeria's Second XI, Paraguay got what their negative tactics deserved. As indeed did Nigeria for deliberately chucking their third game in order to get Spain out of the competition. (Oh, all right then, I backed Spain at 14- 1, so I'm entitled to moan).

In fact, this moral undercurrent to the way the football is going could be the best form guide of all, if only the pundits care to look for it.

Apart from the fate of Nigeria and Paraguay, France's scare was plainly down to Zidane's Saudi stomp, while Norway's exit came because their tactics were to bore the opposition to defeat. This can only be good news for squeaky clean England against the Hands of Sod tonight. But don't quote me.