Owen's stinging reproach to Keegan rebuff

World and European champions meet their match as goal from substitute caps classy performance
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Trial lawyers have a cardinal rule. It is never to ask a question of a witness if you don't already know the answer. Kevin Keegan may want to file away that nugget from the Bar. Armed with it here at the Stade de France, the England manager would have avoided the exquisitely reproachful response of Michael Owen to the ludicrous decision to leave him on the bench for most of the 1-1 draw with world champions France.

Trial lawyers have a cardinal rule. It is never to ask a question of a witness if you don't already know the answer. Kevin Keegan may want to file away that nugget from the Bar. Armed with it here at the Stade de France, the England manager would have avoided the exquisitely reproachful response of Michael Owen to the ludicrous decision to leave him on the bench for most of the 1-1 draw with world champions France.

More importantly, Keegan might have pulled off the last word in redemption - outside of real competition - with victory over the team who have become the benchmark of quality in the international game.

Keegan said that when Owen brilliantly hooked in the equaliser, he provided an "answer". But to what kind of question? Seventy-two hours after it was asked, its purpose is still bewildering, at least if you put aside the bizarre suggestion in some quarters that it was a pre-emptive move against another outburst from a smouldering Andy Cole. Of all the players at Keegan's disposal, only Owen could have scored the kind of goal which gave England some reward for a performance which rose above some obvious flaws, particularly in defence, to outstrip anything produced on the disastrous Euro 2000 campaign.

It was a goal of instinct, biting and perfectly executed and Owen's reaction to it was the latest evidence of his remarkable maturity as both a player and a man. Of course, as a player he still has much to learn, and refine, but he is 20 years old and the progress he has made so far should commend him to no-one more than Keegan, a player who demanded greatness from himself and in the end achieved it.

In an odd way, the whole episode could prove pivotal in Keegan's difficult fight to save his job. Certainly it underlined dramatically a truth of management that so far he has found elusive. It concerns the absolute imperative of always picking your best players. Owen was sacrificed for the chance to experiment with the "split" strike force of Cole and Paul Scholes.

It was a partnership which was not without possibilities at times, but all of them were dwarfed by the certainty of Owen within 10 minutes of his appearance on the field. He moved into ground fleetingly surrendered by Frank Leboeuf and met Kieron Dyer's cross with a beautifully timed shot.

His face was a picture of satisfaction unsullied by any cheap statement of vindication. If you looked hard, you might just have seen a small nod in the direction of the bench. It was the merest whisper of "I told you so."

To be fair to Keegan, he also stepped back from a hint of the triumphalism that in the past has, and most notably with the claim that England could win Euro 2000 after squeezing in through the back-door, has invited much ridicule. He merely said that England had stepped back from the abyss - and he was right.

When you're on a starvation diet you're grateful for any morsel and there were times in the great fortress of French football when England were certainly entitled to pick up their knives and forks. If David Beckham was inevitably overshadowed by the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Emmanuel Petit and, eventually, Patrick Vieira, he did produce moments of coherent thought and, of course, superior passing technique. This was a breath of fresh air that might have been generated by a wind tunnel. The limits placed on Beckham in central midfield by a lack of authentic pace, and physical power under the most persistent pressure, will always be a problem at the highest level, but those who say that he is the only viable item left in the cupboard of midfield creativity did not lack evidence on this night.

It is also true that when Dyer replaced the leaden Darren Anderton late on, he provided some genuine life along the right. For once Keegan could leave a game with some clear ideas on progression. They were, in order of logic : put Owen's name down first in any future selection, withdraw Scholes to the midfield where he is physically imposing and always mindful of scoring possibilities, try Dyer again on the right, and give Beckham another run in the key area of midfield.

In defence the options are less positive. David Seaman's distribution was at times nightmarish, he was slow to go down on Petit's shot and surely must give way to the more reliable Nigel Martyn. For 20 minutes Gareth Barry looked wonderful on the ball, but was then turned inside out when Thierry Henry moved to the right flank. Henry is capable of embarrassing the very best defenders, but long before the end Barry's claim to a place in that category was beyond recall.

Overall, though, Keegan could legitimately claim an uplift in his prospects.

But then how authentic was the trial? Zidane left the field after playing in Petit for the goal which everyone, with the possible exception of the seething Owen, assumed would be decisive. The lengthy departures of Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps, to the kisses and the cheers which signalled the end of superb international careers, was a surreal interruption to the idea that the French were more interested in beating the English than saying a proper adieu to their legionnaires of honour. Even so, there were times when the world champions threatened to run amok. Martin Keown was lucky to escape a penalty when he brought down Nicolas Anelka and in one burst of collective virtuosity the French might have scored three or four goals.

Finally, students of the over-the-ball tackle were prepared to put Robert Pires' clattering of Dennis Wise in the league of minor classics. Wise opened his account with a stomach-churning attempt to intimidate Zidane. He had more chance of charming the socks of cafe society, and the lesson from Pires was that you shouldn't really start something you can't finish.

Wise played steadily enough at times but, even with such scant resources, English football should expert more, both in talent and bearing. Surrounded by so many superior midfield operators in blue shirts, his tough-guy act was shallow to the point of derision.

That threatened to be the fate of the entire English effort when the French cast aside the ceremonials in favour of some concerted football in the second half. But with skipper Tony Adams forced out of it with injury, and Barry traumatised by the sheer fluency of French movement, England contrived to dodge a series of bullets, though in the process Nick Barmby had his eagerness dissipated by two missed opportunities. It meant, though, that Keegan's decision to risk the sword at the Stade de France had been justified. He could claim a more balanced and resilient overall performance.

He could point to some coherent passing and a more viable spirit. What he could not do - and to his credit he did not spend much time trying - was to begin to rationalise the omission of Owen from the starting line-up.

Friendly games are notorious for their tendency to blur the important issues. But some things are immutable. One of them is the scoring instinct of Michael Owen. This, from an English perspective, shone above all else in the City of Light.

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