England discover missing style

Keegan draws comfort after the painful memories of Euro 2000 as Beckham is central to the fresh thinking
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A night of deep symbolism for the world champions might yet prove a turning point for the fortunes of the supposed fall guys. England survived with dignity largely intact against the World Cup holders and European champions, who indulged their sense of theatre as much as their footballing instincts.

A night of deep symbolism for the world champions might yet prove a turning point for the fortunes of the supposed fall guys. England survived with dignity largely intact against the World Cup holders and European champions, who indulged their sense of theatre as much as their footballing instincts.

The hard work for the French had been done during high summer in the Low Countries; this was a time for poppers, balloons and jelly, though a starting line-up consisting of 16 players with experience of the Premier League ensured some healthy bouts of custard pie throwing. With a World Cup campaign beginning next month, the seriousness of England's intent was never in doubt, even if the erasure of painful memories of Euro 2000 was at the top of their wish list for the night, a partial eclipse achieved - curses for Kevin Keegan - by Michael Owen, the most controversial omission of his first post-summer selection.

So England found themselves halfway through the second half as bewildered spectators in a protracted bout of air-kissing as Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc were withdrawn from international duty for the last time. The last dramatic gesture of Deschamps' international career was to slip the captain's band on to the arm of his self-appointed successor, Marcel Desailly. Cue more kisses and hugs. In time, David Beckham's international career might end in similar Hollywood style, but, in the meantime, he stood in the centre circle clapping the whole show like a schoolboy in the threepenny seats.

A long summer of navel-gazing prompted Keegan to return to his buccaneering roots. If he had laid out his troops for a war of attrition for Euro 2000, last night we had the spirit of the Newcastle Years. From the Battle of the Somme to the Charge of the Light Brigade in one easy leap. The subalterns on the field might have been forgiven a certain confusion.

In the capital of chic - surely only in Paris could footballers' retirements be marked by the presentation of giant shopping bags - Keegan had demanded some style, a quality so lacking in the summer campaign that L'Equipe, the French sports daily, had written of the desperate victory over Germany as a " spectacle pathetique", a description which required no translation, elaboration or contradiction.

Given the talent arrayed on the French bench, the realists here thought leaving the Stade de France with fig leaf intact was a rather more pertinent ambition than displaying the designer labels. The one hope, it seemed, for England was that in all the partying in honour of the departing trio of Deschamps, Blanc and Lama, Les Bleus might forget to play.

And so it proved for a blessedly long time, every trick and flick being cheered to the echo, the more critical issue of putting the ball in the net reduced to an irrelevant detail. Only when Thierry Henry moved to the right wing to attack Gareth Barry did the French forwards threaten to break the stalemate of the first half.

Central, in every sense, to the new England - if we can label the five changes in personnel from the Romanian débâcle with such clarity - was the switching of Beckham, a move justified by the return to the right midfield of Darren Anderton, the only other England player capable of crossing the ball à la Becks. Beckham has had quite a week, even by his high profile standards: an out of court settlement over the publication of an unauthorised biography, a minor irritant compared to the real concerns over the health of his wife, Victoria, and, last night, a meeting with Zinedine Zidane and not an appeal judge in sight. At the end of a largely inconclusive evening, the jury was still out on the experiment.

It is a matter of balance. The Germans and the Finns, England's opening two opponents in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, will certainly be pleased to see England's potentially most dangerous midfield player operating in no-man's-land, well out of free-kick range at least. And equally content to be spared those raking crosses. But Beckham - and Keegan - can justifiably point out that none of England's qualifying opponents boast a midfield as lethal as the French. There will, in other words, be less taxing nights.

Successive moves just after half-time, when he drifted out to familiar territory on the right, clipped in a low cross, bent a free-kick just out of Campbell's reach, sprinted back to clear the danger on the edge of his own penalty area, then completed a neat one-two with a ferocious left foot shot over the bar hinted at a growing confidence.

It will take more than the odd game to measure Beckham's worth. His range of passing is an undoubted asset, his engine is diesel-powered, but a life spent hugging the touchline has not prepared him so readily for the hurly burly of central station where quickness of eye and feet, allied to an ability to create space where none exists, are critical, and for the most part, untapped skills.

In one sense, Beckham's luck held. Zidane was in enigmatic form. Only rarely did he reveal any of the slickness of passing, the fluidity of movement and the sheer genius for geometry that marked his peerless performances in Euro 2000. If third gear was engaged, it was only for a moment, once, at least, he had felt Dennis Wise's studs on his precious calf muscles in the opening minute.

For the most part, England resembled a novice juggler trying to ape the master's tricks. The balls stayed in the air, but only with the help of some desperate acrobatics, though Barmby had the best chance of the first half, heading straight at Lama from point-blank range from a typically flighted Beckham corner.

By the end of a surreal night, it was honours even. Not quite the result the French had anticipated; but understandable relief for Keegan. And, amid the farewells, a new beginning for David Beckham in Centre Parc? Perhaps.

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