Beckham fails to deliver on a night he has long craved

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The Independent Online

The banner slung over the lowest of the four tiers of the Santiago Bernabeu proclaimed "Sir Beckham", but for the Real Madrid No 23 it was not a knight to remember. This was a very English evening for him, the first time in the two and a half years since he left the Premiership that he has faced opposition from his own country. A moment he has, consistently, craved and talked about.

In the end, the enduring image of him was as a peripheral figure, undoubtedly committed, but eclipsed by the wondrous, brimming talent of Thierry Henry in a galvanising Arsenal display, even if the impetus Beckham's side so often lacked came only when he was fitfully involved. But that will provide little solace in defeat and in the context of an overall performance of profound disappointment for the 30-year-old and his team.

"I said before that if we didn't perform we wouldn't win the game and we didn't perform," he said. "Arsenal played well but we didn't play like we have done for the last two months. I don't know what happened. They got the space to enjoy themselves and they did well.

"It was a really bad performance from our whole team. The players were not working for each other and were not getting in the box. From the first five minutes you could see we weren't playing with the confidence we've been showing.

"I knew that Arsenal wouldn't come here and defend," Beckham added. "I can't put my finger on it. We've got to stay upbeat but it's hard. It's difficult now, but we have the players to go there and win."

Last night was also, of course, the first time that Real had played an English team since spring 2003 when they faced Manchester United ­ and Beckham was consigned to the bench by Sir Alex Ferguson in the clearest of signs that his time at Old Trafford was at an end. "One of the biggest [nights] in United's history," Beckham said. And, for him, a "big disappointment".

His move to Madrid was confirmed that summer, days after Real won the title. They have not won it, or anything of substance, since, which has been a source of endless fretfulness and repeated changes of coach.

It was Carlos Queiroz, now back at United, who first tried unsuccessfully to convert him into a Claude Makelele-type holding player. His successors followed suit. Finally, Juan Ramon Lopez Caro has grasped the obvious and deploys the England captain on the right.

The comfort of that realisation was slow to show itself last night. Beckham played out wide but his first meaningful pass, cut inside, went straight to Alexander Hleb. Moments later Jose Antonio Reyes tried a similar ball and judged it perfectly. Reyes' pace and timely runs were a feature and contrasted with the prosaic nature of Beckham's play.

Back problems have made it more difficult for him to perform at the level he achieved in the first four months of the season, when he played his best football since arriving in Spain. Last night he was up against the inexperience at left-back of Mathieu Flamini and he was, as the half-hour approached, able to beat the young Frenchman to Zinedine Zidane's cross to head wide his team's first chance. He got the second, but was denied by Jens Lehmann and showed his frustration, hurling a piece of turf. But it marked a shift. Soon the effect of having Beckham wide was being felt a little more keenly.

He was back to the margins as Arsenal scored, standing, hands on hips at halfway as Thierry Henry rolled the ball into the net. He stared at the ground. In the stands his wife Victoria, sat with Henry's wife Nicole Merry as Beckham's guest.

Moments later Beckham was released down the right, only to cut the ball back behind Ronaldo. Then his free-kick thudded into the wall. Then another poor cross. It was not happening for him on a night when he craved most to impress the audience back in Britain.

But Beckham, as ever, persevered. A free-kick picked out Raul, there was another surging run. A third clear chance fell to him but Lehmann was quick to deny as he shaped to shoot. Once more he was left with his hands on his hips, once more a moment of promise had ended without reward for Real, but in a richly deserved victory for Arsenal.

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