Eriksson's emergency repairs cannot match evolution of Ramsey

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The Independent Football

A cool head was required here for a variety of reasons, and not least for the job of getting England's efforts into something like perspective. England won, as they tend to do under Sven Goran Eriksson, who still has only one competitive loss against his name as the national team coach, but that still begged a disturbing number of questions.

Chief among them was how accomplished will be the side's footwork if they do claim a place at the European Championship finals ball in Portugal next summer with a defeat of Liechtenstein on Wednesday and a draw in Istanbul next month.

It would certainly be ungenerous to discount the spirit that went into the second-half recovery which redeemed a desperately poverty-stricken first 45 minutes. But with potential opponents like Italy, Germany and France, rather than Balkan makeweights Macedonia, on their Portuguese dance card, for England the ballroom floor must be still be considered hazardous indeed.

Even after allowing for the absence of Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard, the disarray in midfield was shocking, a sole source of comfort being the assurance of Owen Hargreaves.

Defence, especially along the left side where Ashley Cole continues to look a parody of an international-class defender, was often embarrassing and if Eriksson must be credited with finding a way to get his hands on the points, his solution was not the kind to stir the football senses. He withdrew Frank Lampard from his place at the tip of the "diamond", injected Emile Heskey, dropped Wayne Rooney back into the "hole", and had David Beckham fire as many long balls as he could at the head of the big Liverpool striker.

To Eriksson's vast relief, the ploy worked almost instantly. Beckham picked out Heskey, who knocked the ball down into vacant space with a fine, soft touch, and Rooney steamed in to supplant Michael Owen, who was given scarcely a sniff of the ball all night, as the youngest-ever scorer for England.

Still reeling from the blow, Macedonia, who had thoroughly dominated the first half, lurched into panic when Beckham fired in a typically acute free-kick that dropped to John Terry, whose legs were promptly taken by the Brazilian-born substitute Braga. Beckham knocked in the penalty and ran with arms outstretched to the England fans who weren't supposed to be there. Game over, perhaps, but not the need for that stream of questions.

The biggest one concerns the lack of true development in this England team. Eriksson did an excellent job in gaining qualification for last summer's World Cup finals but when the big show came, his team were members of the chorus line. Here, a similar scenario was hard to dispel.

England, for heaven's sake, should beat Slovakia and Macedonia, and they should do it with infinitely more authority than has been on display in four qualifying matches which all required some kind of escape plan - the previous one, against Slovakia in Middlesbrough, relying on one of Owen's least uplifting talents, the "professional" necessity to sometimes take a dive.

Eriksson coyly admitted he had been told that England's victory equalled the all-time record for winning runs - the seven racked up by Alf Ramsey's World Cup-winning team on the way to the 1966 tournament. But analysis of the teams' respective records is not encouraging.

Before drawing with Uruguay in the opening World Cup game, Ramsey's England had home victories over Germany and Yugoslavia, and won away in Scotland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Poland. They scored 19 goals and conceded four, with five clean sheets and three of the lost goals coming in a Hampden Park shoot-out. The current team beat Liechtenstein, Turkey, South Africa, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovakia, Croatia and Macedonia. They scored 15 goals against five with two clean sheets, one of them against Liechtenstein.

The comparison, when measuring the quality of opposition, is harsh - and especially when it is remembered that before their seven-win run, Ramsey's "wingless wonders" played brilliantly in Madrid to win 2-0 and drew at home 1-1 with Poland. After the Madrid victory, the Spanish coach said that England were a team capable of beating anyone in the world; they had evolved into a "fantastic" team. Such a claim here on Saturday night would have invited only ridicule.

Eriksson's England, the gut instinct says, do not evolve. They lurch along with the coach tinkering his way out of one crisis after another.

Against Macedonia, the performance thus might be said to have been definitive. Definitive of England and also, perhaps, their captain Beckham.

In strictly football terms he was adjudged by many to be man of the match - and certainly the impact of his ability to strike the ball beautifully and relevantly in the second half was crucially significant. But as a captain his work was highly questionable.

At a critical point in the first half, when the Macedonians had sliced through England's defence to go ahead through Georgi Hristov, he lost his head to the point of risking being sent off, kicking Hristov just a few yards away from the referee, who merely handed Beckham a yellow card.

When he scored his penalty, he ran to the spectators who had been urged to stay at home by the Football Association - and at the end he urged his team-mates to join him in saluting their presence. Later, embarrassed FA officials, who for weeks before the match had been warning that Skopje had a culture of violence on a par with Dodge City and Tombstone around the time of the Earp family, said they would be talking to the players about the incident.

No doubt the Gradski stadium wasn't a picnic for the England players - or those fans who ignored the FA pleadings not to travel and risk a possible banning of England from the competition. The burning of the flag of St George and racist chanting were particularly offensive, but then again English indignation at crowd misconduct always has to be carefully thought out. Burning a nation's flag is gross conduct, but then so is trashing cities like Marseilles and Brussels. Beckham complained of spitting by Macedonia players and threats that he wouldn't leave the stadium alive - but the problem was not exactly novel.

The author of some of the agitation was Macedonia's captain, Artim Sakiri, who last year in Southampton undermined the career of David Seaman with his outrageous goal from a corner kick - and on Saturday night was by some distance the outstanding creative force in the game. Sakiri was particularly enraged by Beckham's feverish time-wasting at the right corner flag in the last three or four minutes of the game.

Sakiri, who plays for West Bromwich Albion, thought it was behaviour that didn't befit a great player - or a great team. Certainly it was another reason not to see victory in Skopje as anything more than another deliverance.

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