Night of inspiration turns to desperation for Beckham

Eriksson's credentials still in question as the plot falls apart
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The Independent Football

As the one of Vienna's great thinkers - that's right, Arnold Schwarzenegger - once informed the world: "When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength." Sven Goran Eriksson would, no doubt, concur with that philosophy in the aftermath of his summer of love and England's championships of underachievement.

As the one of Vienna's great thinkers - that's right, Arnold Schwarzenegger - once informed the world: "When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength." Sven Goran Eriksson would, no doubt, concur with that philosophy in the aftermath of his summer of love and England's championships of underachievement.

For two-thirds of this World Cup qualifier here last night, it appeared that Eriksson's self-delusion about his team's Euro 2004 virtues followed by his ill-judged participation in what would become known as Fariagate could all be negated by a comfortable if uninspiring victory in Group Six. Hail Eriksson the Terminator! How wrong we would be. England's familiar failings restricted them to one point against hosts who are ranked 69th in the world and by, any estimation, were limited in their ambition and technical capabilities.

The tone of Austria coach Hans Krankl, a kind of restrained euphoria, told us everything about his team's achievement. "It was an excellent result after being two goals down. It's not something that happens every day," he said. "Not for a team like ours, against a great team like England."

The problem for Eriksson is that it does happen. Normally only from a position of one goal to the good. But too frequently. England drift into that strange state where they are uncertain whether to slash the opposition jugular or merely stand back, hoping that the body is deceased. Here, Austria, like that corpse in the clichéd horror movie, sprang back to life.

Post-Lisbon, post-FA mistress, there was rather more than England's World Cup qualification in sharpest of focus here last night. For Eriksson, in the city of Freud, who may have well formulated a theory or three about Eriksson's peccadillos, it was a return to competitive action for the first occasion since that shambolic conclusion to Euro 2004.

This is the stage on which foundation supports of the Swede's reputation are driven - so his devotees constantly claim - and while neither last night's inexperienced opponents, nor Wednesday's, Poland, should have placed either his future or England's in jeopardy as they progress towards Germany 2006, the scrutiny of his strategies will be unrelenting.

Gary Neville, one of Eriksson's most faithful retainers, claimed last week that for the Football Association to have dislodged Eriksson, under whatever pretext, would have meant a return to the dark ages (of Kevin Keegan). Perhaps, although his critics would contend that the Swede's continued stewardship has yet to produce a blinding light of 21st century football thinking a salary of £4m a year should decree.

While England were gratified that Steven Gerrard survived a test on a groin problem, the wisdom of placing faith in a player who has not trained fully was debatable. We have witnessed before the effect of England players performing when restricted by injury.

Notably David Beckham, described by his 20-year-old Austrian counterpart Andreas Ivanschitz of Rapid Vienna as "a fashion icon and a great footballer", a player, who, contrary to all rationale, retained his position and his captaincy in Portugal. Given the duress placed on players limbs today, particularly such prodigious workhorses as Beckham, this is realistically the Real Madrid man's final opportunity of securing a major international tournament success.

There had been some lively, exotic dancing on the pitch before the opening whistle. Immediately after it, the steps were rather less precise and certainly too predictable, as their propensity for yielding possession was once again, too evident.

If England had anticipated that this would be little more than a shirt-swapping exercise for Austria's players, they were quickly disabused of that notion. The hosts fashioned a minimum of openings up front, but as a retreating force their covering and tackling was persuasive.

Under such circumstances, it was, for the first half, at least, Beckham's kind of night as he picked away tirelessly at the Austria rearguard like a teenager might his acne. He dominated the right flank, in harness with his old United pal, Neville, and consorted with the heart of midfield as he swept imperiously inside.

Alan Smith, in for his soon-to-be fellow club striker Rooney, and Owen, liberated in Madrid, laboured valiantly, and, with Frank Lampard and Gerrard's imagination given free reign, England almost imperceptibly made their superior presence felt. Whether Wayne Bridge is the answer to the left-side dilemma remains questionable, though. The Austria defenders soon discovered that, forced on to his right side, he is rendered largely impotent.

The prelude to England's opener was farcical, the product of a free-kick for a backpass to Alex Manninger, its execution equally so, from an Austria perspective. Beckham, displaying alertness, dispatched the ball to Lampard and the Chelsea man swept it past a stricken goalkeeper. It was as facile as a five-a-side goal. Where were the Arsenal defence when the former Highbury goalkeeper needed them?

It should have had the effect of a calming opiate. It failed to. Even Gerrard's glorious loop over Manninger offered Eriksson's men no expectation that the game was dead, as well as buried. The refusal of Hans Krankl's men to capitulate continued to elicit some anxious muttering on the England bench. Substitute Roland Kollman's splendid free-kick yielded Austria hope. Ivanschitz's daisy-cutter through James offered salvation for the a grateful home team.

A caution for Beckham betrayed the captain's edginess. His wayward passing had, by now, confimed it. An evening which had begun so auspiciously for England ended in darkness. The kind last observed by a fellow named Harry Lime in the Vienna sewers.

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