Lennon challenge to Beckham speeds up

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The Independent Football

Aaron Lennon or David Beckham against Slovakia on Saturday? July 2006, a tearful Beckham retires to the bench and into his place against Portugal in the World Cup quarter-finals comes Lennon: fast, direct and uninhibited. Finally, by luck rather than design, Sven Goran Eriksson has the right team on the pitch and for 10 minutes England look as if they might be in business.

Lennon's World Cup finals could have been very different had it not been for Wayne Rooney's sending-off on 62 minutes, the team's necessary reorganisation and their subsequent collapse during penalties. In a side that was being forced back by Portugal, Lennon was marginalised and was finally substituted himself with two minutes left of extra time. His replacement was Jamie Carragher, brought on to take a penalty: another plan which did not work out as Eriksson had intended.

That golden 10 minutes was the most impressive that Lennon contributed during a tournament in which he shone the brightest out of England's two teenage players. On Saturday, two years and eight months after Lennon was supposed to have superseded Beckham, Fabio Capello has to make that decision all over again. Is Lennon, the best winger in the Premier League on current form, up to taking the place of the old master on the right?

Those who regard the Lennon or Beckham debate as a straight choice, between pace plus erratic crosses or zero pace plus precision delivery, do not take into account the reality that Lennon's final ball is not as wayward as it has been in the past. It was Lennon who picked out Luka Modric for Tottenham's winner against Chelsea on Saturday, even if he almost hit the stadium's big screen with his cross when he broke down the right late on in the game with the defence at his mercy.

Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, was disbelieving that Lennon's delivery could be so radically different. Tim Sherwood, now a coach at Spurs, has worked closely with Lennon and he said yesterday that the winger's final ball is better than people think. "He [Lennon] is different to Beckham and you can't really compare them, so it depends what Capello is looking for," Sherwood said. "If you want someone to go past the full-back, get to the byline and get crosses in, then Aaron is the man. I haven't seen anyone give Patrice Evra a tougher time than he did in the Carling Cup final.

"Like Theo Walcott, he [Lennon] takes a lot of criticism for his final ball but people don't realise how quickly they are going. You have got to be really fast to get around a full-back like that and there aren't many other who can do it. He's the kind of player who goes by the winger and everyone is on their feet. Then if he does make a mistake with the cross everyone feels let down. But he got there in the first place, which not many can.

"He has been tremendous for us. He also takes a lot of kicks from the opposition. I have lost count of the amount of times Lennon has run at a full-back, drawn a foul and the player has been booked. After that the full-back is on the tightrope trying not to foul him."

Remarkably, Lennon, with nine caps for England, only turns 22 next month: plenty of time to challenge Walcott as the long-term successor to Beckham on the right wing. But he thought that in 2006 when, at the age of 19, he looked ready to push out the then England captain. Almost three years on, that job does not look as easy as it might have done during that summer in Germany.