Shearer rallies to revitalise England

Keegan takes heart from deserved victory over Belgium but lack of pace and ideas are still a concern ahead of the Euro 2000 play-offs;
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The Independent Football

HAVING BEEN rescued by Sweden from the scaffold, England began to show signs of prospering from their reprieve at the Stadium of Light yesterday.

HAVING BEEN rescued by Sweden from the scaffold, England began to show signs of prospering from their reprieve at the Stadium of Light yesterday.

While there was still evidence of clear limitations in Kevin Keegan's side, for the first time in his reign England finished a match looking like aconfident team rather than a disparate collection of individuals.

Given the lead by Alan Shearer's fifth-minute opener, his 28th goal for England, they were knocked out of their stride by Branko Strupar'sequaliser eight minutes later but recovered to win with a stunning 66th-minute goal from Jamie Redknapp, his first in 15 internationals.

Victory was ultimately deserved, but Keegan will be aware that several better sides than Belgium will be going into Wednesday's play-off drawin Aachen. He will hope the confidence gained from their first victory over professional opposition in five matches will lead to furtherimprovement in those matches, to be played on November 13/14 and 17.

Keegan rightly drew a measure encouragement from the debuts of Steve Guppy and Frank Lampard but, with next month's matches in mind, itwas have been the sharpness of Shearer and Michael Owen, a second-half substitute, which will have heartened him most. They still do not looka partnership - Owen had been on the pitch for 24 minutes before he and Shearer exchanged a meaningful pass - but both look in good form.

Owen's booking, for diving, was less encouraging. It suggested he has gained a reputation which will be harder to lose than it was to acquire.

Also on the debit side the defensive limitations of Kieron Dyer were clearly exposed and Keegan had to replace him. He also had to speakharshly to Redknapp and Lampard at half-time but was pleased with the response.

"It was a great start and you think - let's go and play - but for the first time I had to get angry with a few players," said Keegan. "The two I gotinto were Redknapp and Lampard. They responded really well so maybe I should get angry again.

"We were trying to play the Continental way again instead of getting at them. When we go away from that English will to win a ball we losesomething.

"The formation was OK but not a flying success. I was looking to get the best from Guppy and Dyer. It was a learning experience for Dyer -he will get better. Guppy didn't knock the lights out but he played OK, better than well, and having a left-sided player gave us a balance."

England had entered not, like Sunderland do, to the rousing strains of Prokofiev, but to the Robbie Williams pop song "Let Me Entertain You".This seemed a hostage to fortune, but the post-Stockholm party atmosphere was maintained for a few minutes as England, beginning likeliberated men after the Swedish reprieve, scored with their first attack.

A twice-taken corner was floated deep by Guppy to Tony Adams. Lampard met his knock-down with a mis-hit volley but it came to Shearerwho intelligently fell backwards to surprise Geert de Vlieger in goal with a sharp overhead kick.

At last, it seemed, Keegan's new England, shorn of the baggage left by Glenn Hoddle, was about to emerge. It was a false dawn. Far from beingcowed, Belgium, under even newer management and with equally patchy form, took the match to their hosts.

With England relaxing some slick passing and movement took Belgium into the heart of the English defence and, after a few minutes probing -and a near miss by Jacky Peeters - they opened it up. The impressive Marc Wilmots and Gilles de Bilde released David Oyen on the left andhis cross was tapped in by the equally unmarked Strupar.

This was not, as Keegan might have put it, in the brochure and neither players nor supporters at England's 45th and newest international venueseemed to know how to react. As a consequence the rest of the half was played out in almost total silence as Belgium, without threatening asecond, comfortably contained a tentative and frequently slow-paced England side.

Only once, when clever play by Dyer and Lampard, and a neat back-heel by Kevin Phillips, almost set up Guppy, did England look remotelypenetrative.

Following Keegan's half-time exhortation England began the second period with greater sense of purpose, quickly managing their second shotof the game. It came from Lampard, after Phillips had flicked on Shearer's header, and brought a decent save from Ronald Gaspercic, asubstitute goalkeeper.

Nigel Martyn, who had also come on at half-time, was then extended as Belgium responded with a De Bilde volley which was arrowing towardsthe top corner.

England brightened further after Keegan brought on Phil Neville to tighten the defence and Owen to pep up the forward line. This the Liverpoolstriker did, but only after being booked for diving under the challenge of Eric van Meir after 62 minutes. The defender did put an arm acrosshim, but Owen did fall theatrically. "I thought it was a penalty," said Keegan.

Four minutes later Owen was on the floor again, this time legitimately after a clean tackle by Yves Vanderhaeghe. The ball rolled free toRedknapp who, from 25 yards, drilled the ball just under the crossbar.

Had Wilmots taken a very good chance a minute later - he shot straight at Martyn - England might have stumbled again but, instead, they wenton to control the closing stages. Shearer, Owen - after a neat link with Shearer - and Gareth Southgate went close before Emile Heskey, seizingon a back-pass, rounded Gaspercic but hit the post.

It was probably for the best. A third goal might have obscured the reality that a place in the championship cannot be taken for granted.

ENGLAND (3-5-2): Seaman (Arsenal); Keown (Arsenal), Adams (Arsenal), Southgate (Aston Villa); Dyer (Newcastle United), Lampard(West Ham United), Ince (Middlesbrough), Redknapp (Liverpool), Guppy (Leicester City); Shearer (Newcastle United), Phillips (Sunderland).Substitutes: Martyn (Leeds United) for Seaman, h/t; P Neville (Manchester United) for Dyer, 57; Owen (Liverpool) for Phillips, 57; Wise(Chelsea) for Lampard, 75; Heskey (Leicester) for Shearer, 85.

BELGIUM (4-4-2): De Vlieger (Anderlecht); Deflandre (Bruges), Peeters (Arminia Bielfeld), Van Meir (Lierse), Oyen (Anderlecht);Vanderhaeghe (Excelsior Mouscron), Wilmots (Schalke 04), Tanghe (Excelsior Mouscron), Van Kerckhoven (Schalke 04); Strupar (Ghent), deBilde (Sheffield Wednesday). Substitutes: Gaspercic (Extremadura) for de Vlieger, h/t; Walem (Parma) for Tanghe, h/t; Brogno (Westerlo) forStupar, 73.

Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).

Bookings: England: Owen. Belgium: Deflandre.

Man of the match: Redknapp.

Attendance: 40,897.