Open season again on Keegan the whipping boy

The world's best await, but England's beleaguered manager has few new cards to play
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Since Euro 2000, Germany have appointed a new coach in Rudi Voeller, placed their football under severe scrutiny, and beaten Spain 4-1 in a friendly.

Since Euro 2000, Germany have appointed a new coach in Rudi Voeller, placed their football under severe scrutiny, and beaten Spain 4-1 in a friendly.

Meanwhile, Kevin Keegan has been claiming the cup for Europe. Never mind that it was the Shergar Cup between Europe - of which the England coach was non-participating captain - and the Rest of the World at Ascot racecourse. Any success will do.

Keegan the front man is at his best on such occasions, helping to transform a highly contrived event into a qualified success. Unfortunately, his detractors have been more concerned that the England coach might be in dereliction of his footballing duties when involved in his favourite pastime of horseracing. It is totally unjust, of course; a day at the races is hardly going to jeopardise England's aspirations of appearing in the 2002 World Cup finals, Keegan's next target. But at the moment, any whip will do to beat him.

As he prepares to name his England squad to face the Euro 2000 winners, France, in a friendly in Paris on Saturday week, he enters a period of renewed hostility from his critics. While the FA's chairman, Geoff Thompson, and chief executive, Adam Crozier, both continued to endorse Keegan's virtues this week, he has already placed himself under pressure by stating that failure in this year's World Cup qualifiers will result in him departing. To quote him precisely in the aftermath of defeat by the Romanians in Charleroi: "If we go out and we don't perform, certainly against Germany and Finland, which are the two key games, maybe that's the time when the FA's David Davies, Adam Crozier, and Geoff Thompson will be put under tremendous pressure to get rid of me. If the time was right, I don't think they'd find that difficult and I'm not one of those who'd say, 'Right. I'm not moving.'"

Keegan is in an unenviable position where although the performances in the Lowlands suggest that several players have had their England day, there will have been only two Premiership games for him to assess players. His mantra will almost certainly be "Now is not the time to experiment", although it is to be hoped, however, that at least those who have been introduced to international examination already, and flourished, like Gareth Barry and Steven Gerrard, will get their chance.

However, in one crucial position he has no alternative: that of replacing his captain and principal striker Alan Shearer. It is as well that the Newcastle man has retired because you suspect that, with Keegan's myopic view of him, he would still be leading the line against France, despite performances that indicated to the contrary in Euro 2000. Apart from anything else, Shearer's presence has limited England's attacking options. As Sir Alex Ferguson said this week when assessing his own player Andy Cole's right to assume the Shearer mantle: "The difficulty is that Alan Shearer became the focal point for the England team. It was difficult for managers to look beyond him. But now they can, and perhaps the team will play differently."

Other than Michael Owen, and even his halo slipped a little in the summer when he was substituted, and Robbie Fowler (who is injured anyway), there is, frankly, not an embarrassment of riches waiting to accept the striker's crown, although the likes of Michael Bridges, Francis Jeffers and Alan Smith offer hope for the future.

Ferguson leaves no doubt whom his nomination would favour. "Players like Cole and [Robbie] Fowler should get their chance," he said. "It would be a good opportunity for Andy. To be honest, he's always felt that he should be playing anyway. I don't think that Kevin will mind me saying that. It's positive for the country that players want to play." Keegan has not always concurred, of course, and left Cole out of his Euro 2000 squad on the grounds that he was injured, despite taking other players who were also not totally fit. It would be a surprise if Cole was not included in Keegan's squad, though whether he starts against France is another matter. Emile Heskey will, no doubt, be named, too, despite a poor Euro 2000 on his limited performances, together with Kevin Phillips.

In defence, Graeme Le Saux will almost certainly return, but the rearguard is an area that Keegan will have given much thought to this summer. Although Tony Adams is likely to be captain against France, he is injury-prone and, as he demonstrated against Portugal, beyond his best. Also, like his Arsenal team-mate Martin Keown, Adams is not the best of passers from the back, and Keegan has already emphasised that he needs his defenders to instigate moves as well as frustrate the opposition. The question is, does the coach introduce players equipped to do that, like Rio Ferdinand, at this stage?

While the names in Keegan's squad will provide for much debate this week, it is the demeanour of the man himself which will be just as instructive. The margin of defeat against Portugal and Romania was narrow, and his team did actually succeed in defeating Germany competitively for the first time since 1966. However, the perception is that psychologically his "boys took one hell of a beating" - as it was once said famously of another England team. A fixture against the World and European champions will give invaluable clues as to whether they can recover, and whether Keeganremains the man for the task.