Past nightmares return to create penalty jitters

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The Independent Football

Not one for the family album: the image of a bawling Beckham peering out of the tabloids. Thankfully, it was junior, Romeo, and not dad, who was a wailing gargoyle of temper tantrum, and reduced to a flood of tears, being comforted by his mother, Victoria, at the culmination of a night of raw emotion at Estadio da Luz; though the England captain must have sat in the dressing-room suffering rather similar frustrations.

Not one for the family album: the image of a bawling Beckham peering out of the tabloids. Thankfully, it was junior, Romeo, and not dad, who was a wailing gargoyle of temper tantrum, and reduced to a flood of tears, being comforted by his mother, Victoria, at the culmination of a night of raw emotion at Estadio da Luz; though the England captain must have sat in the dressing-room suffering rather similar frustrations.

What is it with England players and penalties? On tournament records over the last 14 years, God forbid they are involved in a shoot-out, should they progress out of Group B, the Group of Life (a defeat of Switzerland and a draw against Croatia could yet yield them a qualifying place). The agonies of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle at Italia '90, the pain of Gareth Southgate at Euro '96 (notwithstanding that he capitalised quite nicely from that pizza chain ad) and the misery of Paul Ince (who apparently hadn't even volunteered in '96) and David Batty at the 1998 World Cup (when Glenn Hoddle had decided that practising penalties was a futile exercise) are all too fresh in the mind.

Shoot-outs may be a factor to concern England in the future. For the moment, scoring them, individually, in normal time, is exercising England minds. Depressingly, this was a second successive failure by Beckham, who, admittedly, had slipped before resembling Jonny Wilkinson with his previous England penalty in Istanbul.

This time, he was thwarted by a splendid save from Barthez, a player whom Beckham, last week, had refused to denigrate as being France's weakest component, describing him instead, with a certain unfortunate prescience, as "world-class on his day". Confound him, Beckham must have pondered later, that this had to be one of those days. The attempt, struck venomously, was placed at a convenient height and well within reach of the goalkeeper.

Beckham's pure power policy can be effective. But that lack of subtlety does offer the goalkeeper a chance, if only a 10 per cent one. "In a situation like this one, the odds are 90 per cent against the goalkeeper, but you never know," Barthez reflected. "It's only instinct." For the taker, it should be a science. The England captain may reflect that Ferenc Puskas only rarely provided such generosity. The imperious Hungarian practised by aiming at a one-foot disc suspended a yard below the crossbar and a yard from the post.

While you suspect that pride would determine that Beckham would resist all attempts to wrest the ball out of his hands next time, who would you actually entrust with a spot-kick next time, anyway?

Michael Owen? The striker, who, whether because of Sven Goran Eriksson's tactics, or his own shortcomings, was a poor imitation of his typical England self here, insisted that he would not shirk the responsibility, if asked. Yet, though his record may read three out of three for England, his extraordinary sequence of inconsistency, spurning 10 out of his last 23 chances from the spot for Liverpool, is too readily recalled.

Unfortunately, there is no Danny Murphy around to direct England clinically out of a spot. Steven Gerrard, who until that last-minute aberration had fortified England with his driving presence, is a possible contender. So, too, Frank Lampard.

But Beckham clearly would regard it as an affront to his dignity if stripped of his penalty-taker's braid. The honour and responsibility will presumably remain with him. Hopefully, Sunday night's experience will not.

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