James Lawton: Beckham's questionable leadership outweighs craftsman's exquisite touch

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The Independent Online
Fighting imagery, for all his talk of competitive zeal, does not attach itself naturally to David Beckham. He has neither the technique nor the nerve for anything other than a nominal tackle, and when he attempts more it is, as we were reminded here on Saturday, a parody of serious bodily contact.</p>However, in all his troubles he did remind us of one of the square ring's oldest truths. It is that a champion's most enduring quality - his last asset - is the power of his punch.</p>In Beckham's case, it is surely an ability to strike the ball with his right foot with an exquisite touch. This confirmed England's victory over the outclassed Welsh and ensured Beckham's return, however briefly, to the role of hero at his old hunting ground.</p>Unfortunately, a single bolt from the heavens was not likely to remove the more serious doubts about the England captain's emergence from the most critical phase of both his career and his life, and this was confirmed soon enough. Within minutes he had received a yellow card and was out of this week's trip to Azerbaijan; so what did we have but a flash of old glory and a fresh bout of fears for the future of our most celebrated footballer?</p>The caution, added to the one he received in Vienna last month, was by then, as it turned out, academic. An earlier, equally hapless collision with the Welsh full-back Ben Thatcher had caused a hairline fracture of a rib. With another kiss-and-tell scandal breaking over his head, conspiracy theorists inevitably speculated that Beckham may well have chosen to remove himself from the high-profile trip to one of the outposts of the former Soviet Union, but then, as it was also pointed out, some might consider a tricky press conference beside the Caspian Sea preferable to the closer proximity of a scorned and pregnant wife.</p>Beckham and his faithful coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, would no doubt dismiss such speculation, but where does that leave us? Confronting yet again mounting evidence that Beckham is indeed temperamentally unsuited to the demands of leadership. If he loses control so easily against such a vastly inferior and unaccountably passionless Welsh team, how secure is his captaincy when the chips are higher and the opposition more demanding?</p>Some, analysing his performances in major tournaments, believe they know the answer to that question, but Eriksson remains doggedly outside their number. He dismissed the suggestion that Beckham had behaved irresponsibly and urged us to talk about the goal.</p>That is no hardship. It was by any standards a beautiful goal - an important one, too. Though England, buoyed by the sharply improved form of Michael Owen and the continued majesty of Wayne Rooney, were infinitely superior to Wales, they still needed the clinching second goal that wraps up a game, and Beckham supplied it from the bottom drawer of his finest talent. Paul Jones, who had shown great defiance in the face of waves of English attack, was mesmerised by the stunning perfection of Beckham's shot.</p>Such a moment of reclaimed brilliance, it has been said, was all that Beckham needed to restore his old swashbuckling aura. That it was a fragile hope could not have been confirmed more swiftly. The eruption with Thatcher was both pointless and dismaying, something that could not be obscured by Beckham's milking of the applause that came when he hobbled off the field.</p>Earlier, Beckham's contribution had been as inconsequential as almost all of his work for England since he reported for duty at the start of this summer. Fortunately for Eriksson, the reality of genuine leadership - and inspiration - was evident enough at the feet of Rooney. The 18-year-old came into this game under an immense weight of expectation and it says everything about both his talent and his competitive maturity that even the most demanding critic could not have been disappointed. It is true that there was one moment of betrayal, a failure to pass to the infinitely better positioned Owen when Rooney had found himself with the ball at an acute angle to the goal, but both Owen and his strike partner Jermain Defoe had been guilty, albeit less flagrantly, of the same offence from time to time, and if Rooney had shown a hint of his youth here, it was a forgivable lapse. Indeed, there were times when the head on his shoulders had seemed to have gathered so much of the wisdom of the football ages it wouldn't have been so much of a surprise to see wisps of white beard on his chin.</p>Rooney's sheer facility, his understanding of position and movement, his availability to take a pass from pressured team-mates, his coruscating run in the second half which was denied a goal of unforgettable brilliance only by the desperate deflection of a Welsh boot, made all else in the game seem, if not completely marginal, some way from its central point of having one player head and shoulders above all else.</p>In those margins the return of Rio Ferdinand was reassuring, despite the fact that most of the time he was patrolling ground stripped of menace, and the form of Ashley Cole continued to rebuke those of us who believed that for all his talent he would never master the technical demands of the truly international-class defender. Once again Cole was quite masterful in his bite and his reading of the game.</p>The formal captaincy will now pass to Owen for one game, as it did when Beckham ruled himself out of the vital European Championship qualifier with Slovakia, and it is Eriksson's good fortune that Owen takes over the responsibility again at a time of some quite significant resurrection. Owen's problems at Real Madrid, the sense that he was a player who had lost his way, largely dissolved in this performance. Even though the Welsh defence was so plainly flawed, Owen showed much of his old aggression and confidence.</p>It was, more than anything, an effort of will and character. He came into the game under quite legitimate pressure. Defoe made an impressive but unavailing case for himself before the European Championships and when he got his chance against Poland in the previous game he marked a brilliant performance with a fine goal. Here, he posed less of a sustained threat and when Alan Smith came on there was no question about Owen's right to remain on the field.</p>Now, Eriksson will surely play Rooney alongside Owen in Baku and give the eager Shaun Wright-Phillips a chance to strengthen his challenge to Beckham along the right in a 4-4-2 formation. More than anything, the adventurous young Manchester City player needs patience if he is ever to supplant Eriksson's favourite son. The England coach's defence of his captain remains as resolute as ever in the face of the latest frailty. Whether it would have been so strong if Beckham had not unfurled one of his most brilliant goals is now beside the point.</p>Beckham confirmed the English victory and bought himself some valuable space. However, it is an advantage that cannot be wasted. It was a goal as beautiful as any scored by the old King of English football, but in reality you have to believe that it was really just a stitch in time. </p>

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