Football: The impeccable, the impossible

Schmeichel's rush and Beckham's rashness marred a memorable night
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The Independent Online
There are times when even the supposedly impartial critic finds his objectivity compromised. When he finds himself screaming inwardly at a player. It happened twice at the Olympiapark on Wednesday night, the latter of the occasions when Peter Schmeichel's impetuosity got the better of him when he needed to be imperturbable, that moment when he flailed for the ball which Bixente Lizarazu had hurled into the Munich sky towards his goal. "Whatever you do, Peter . . ." the words formed mentally even as the excellent French World Cup full-back, whose jousting with David Beckham ended with just about honours even, placed his throw within Schmeichel's reach, "don't go for that ba . . ."

For some reason, that clever Reebok advertisement came to mind. The one in which, pictured feeding a sow and piglets back home at Gladsaxe, the Manchester United goalkeeper wonders, "What would have I become if I had bought some good quality training kit instead of that cheap nylon rubbish?"

You wondered if anyone in the visitors' dressing room furthered his knowledge of useful English with an explanation of the expression, "You made a right pig's ear of that". Probably not. Certainly in public, manager Alex Ferguson rightly gave a metaphorical pat of consolation and support to his great Dane. Beckham's impetuosity is quite a different matter. No doubt, Ferguson, that great protector of his brood of fledglings, displayed patience with Beckham, too; though somewhere deep in the psyche of the Scot there is probably an exasperated schoolmaster who would like to give one of his more gifted pupils a cuff around the ear, and scold him with a Captain Mainwaring-like "stupid boy".

The England midfielder remains a worrying phenomenon. As much as that spontaneous combustion which he constantly undergoes can instil fire in United bellies, rendering a lethal menace to the opposition, his utter recklessness can also rekindle their rivals' desire when a cause is apparently lost.

It is as if he hasn't learnt a thing from that little World Cup indiscretion. He was cautioned for one of those spiteful, late challenges on Stefan Effenburg which he shouldn't even have attempted. Worse might have ensued, had the referee, Marc Batta, not reacted rather more benignly than Kim Nielsen did at St Etienne when, enraged by having his shirt tugged by the Bosnia striker Hasan Salihamidzic, he first tapped his ankle, then elbowed him. As it is, it means that, having now incurred two yellow cards, he will miss the next game away to Brondby.

If only Beckham could have a drip feed of the stuff that courses through Franz Beckenbauer's veins. Their former player, now Bayern Munich president, a man for whom composure and exemplary conduct were second nature, reflected that Beckham requires perseverance, not reproach, though you suspect that on this occasion he was erring on the side of diplomatic correctness. "He is a wonderful player, but perhaps he may have to learn to cool things down," Beckenbauer said with characteristic understatement. "He is still only young and once he develops and matures that side of his game will improve. Tonight he was against a very good opponent in Lizarazu. It was a very difficult game for him to show his talent and maybe that was why he showed his frustration."

Certainly the prowess of the player who is gathering an unwanted reputation as Precipitous Spice, was diminished in the second half. While his opponents may well feel apprehension that his generous talents will always create goals, like the one Dwight Yorke converted from his sublime cross, they are also becoming increasingly conscious that a limited amount of provocation can induce a gross over-reaction.

The respective lapses of Schmeichel and Beckham were all the more conspicuous because they contrasted with what, otherwise, was as near impeccable an away performance in Europe as we are likely to witness. Which probably explained why Schmeichel's last-minute aberration and the resulting equaliser of the Brazilian Giovane Elber had his team-mates trudging off heads bowed. In the city where the Oktoberfest ends tonight, they looked more like men only here for the bier.

As Neville Chamberlain found in 1938 when he landed on the site of the Olympiapark - then an airfield - to sign the Munich agreement with Hitler and Mussolini, not everything is always as it seems. Ferguson is shrewd enough to recognise that his team were within two minutes of lauding a famous victory against the Bundesliga runners-up. Unlike a fortnight previously at Old Trafford, against Barcelona, nobody could accuse United of throwing this away with foolish abandon. There are draws you accept with equanimity; those which infuriate you. Although Ferguson spoke of "a kick in the teeth" he was decidedly of the former view on this occasion.

In the imprudent language of some managers, it might have been described as "a tragedy" for the boy, "a disaster" for the team. This, more than any other night, was not one on which to trivialise such words. Forty years on from the real thing - the moment's silence before the game in memory of the Munich dead could not have been a more emotional 60 seconds - football within the red quarters of Manchester will never be seen in such glib terms.

Maybe it was appropriate that Ferguson's players should come of age here. The previous day, he had spoken of an immaturity in his team's decision- making, and how, for all their experience, they would learn by trial and error. Perhaps that was a typical Ferguson piece of psychology, demanding that his team prove him wrong. Either way, until that final minute, they exhibited a resistance which could only be admired. "Bitte, bitte" the fans pleaded, and frankly you couldn't see Bayern equalising, such was United's thoroughly assured defending and the central midfield vigour of Paul Scholes and captain Roy Keane.

Even that mercurial midfielder Effenburg, whose passing can be as clinical as compatriot Stefan Edberg on his day, failed to draw significant blood. The fact that too many of his passes found a United boot was at least partly attributable to the covering of Jaap Stam and Gary Neville in a central defensive pairing which was enforced by illness and injury but could scarcely be faulted. Neither could the deployment of Teddy Sheringham in a role, part supplementing Dwight Yorke, part supplying him, and part defensive cover.

You do not have to be a nostalgic to recognise that today's Bayern, under Ottmar Hitzfeld, are not comparable with that illustrious team, of which Beckenbauer was a member in the early 1970s, along with the likes of Muller and Breitner.

Similarly, United's year of 1998 will have to grow in stature considerably to cause the memory of the Busby Babes to grow faint in comparison, particularly when the effervescent Ryan Giggs is absent because of injury. Two games, no wins in the Champions' League. Five goals conceded, the worst record in the competition, albeit still in its infancy this season, does not suggest that this is a vintage year, more just a decent red.

Yet, you suspect there is more body to this particular year than perhaps initial tastes indicate. Even though Barcelona, with their 2-1 victory over Brondby, took the opportunity to draw clear in Group B, Beckenbauer was not convinced that was of particular significance. "If United continue the way they have been playing, not only can they win the group, but also the European Cup," he insisted. But first Ferguson's team must achieve what has eluded them so far - a victory. Only then will the sceptics begin to chant the mantra that "The Kaiser" has begun. "I believe".