By Josh Benn from Wembley
Billed as the St. Etienne rematch, this
fixture gave England the chance to assess their progress against one of
the world’s finest footballing nations. Doubts about England’s
capabilities had quickly resurfaced after their inept performance in
losing to Scotland in the second leg of the Euro 2000 playoff game last
November, but this had helped to dampen any unrealistic expectations
about England’s chances against Argentina. In recent years
England’s February fixture has proved troublesome. Losses to
Italy in 1997 and Chile in 1998 and an uninspiring 2-0 defeat against world
champions France in 1999 have made the first international of the year a
seemingly tricky match for England to negotiate safely.
Kevin Keegan surprised many England supporters
by selecting Leicester’s Emile Heskey to partner Alan Shearer rather
than the in-form Sunderland striker Kevin Phillips with his more natural
goal-scoring abilities. In addition, his selection of Dennis Wise
raised a few eyebrows considering recent doubts about his temperament
both during and after matches.
England’s midfield had a combative look about
it with three players whose domestic and international disciplinary
record didn’t bear close inspection. Alongside Wise, Paul Scholes,
recently returned from a hernia operation, and David Beckham, recently
returned from the stands (after Sir Alex Ferguson dropped him for
missing a training session) would ensure that Argentina were unlikely to
have the better of the midfield exchanges.
Jason Wilcox on the left and Kieron Dyer on the
right were picked specifically to target crosses for the England front
two, while Sol Campbell's partnership with the impressive Martin Keown
and Gareth Southgate in the heart of England’s defence added skill and
experience to the back line. David Seaman, still Keegan and England’s
first choice, kept out the in-form Leeds keeper Nigel Martyn.
Argentina, whose qualification campaign for the
World Cup starts shortly, fielded a very experienced side, eight of the
starting eleven playing first-team football in Italy. They were in town
to win--rather than to shop, as some commentators suggested.
Batistuta, Ortega, Veron, Sensini and Simeone--all players of superb
quality--were the most likely to cause problems for England, and the
scene was set for an intriguing encounter.
Another Wembley full house screamed on the
arrival of the two teams, and despite pleas from the Football
Association and Keegan, a xenophobic minority booed and hissed during
the Argentinean national anthem and repeatedly chanted "Same old
Argies – always cheating" at any and every opportunity.
England started with purpose and determination,
Emile Heskey in particular looked aggressive in the challenge and the
33-year-old Sensini, for all his experience, immediately looked in
trouble trying to keep the striker in check. Heskey’s aerial
power threatened to overwhelm Argentina at times and he hardly came away
second best from any encounter during the whole match.
Beckham and Wise, trusted with the distribution
of the ball from midfield, made particular use of Wilcox on the left,
and his early crosses formed the main attacks in the Argentina half for
the first 20 minutes. Kieron Dyer, despite a performance of vitality
during his debut last year, rarely looked a threat wide on the right.
Heskey was not having it all his own way and
Ortega and Veron exchanged a delicate pass on the touchline that
resulted in a cross from Ortega which Southgate was first to head away.
However, within a minute, Heskey, chasing down the seeming lost cause of
a back pass to Cavallero, hurried the keeper into making a poor
clearance which fell to Shearer on the edge of the area. His snap
attempt at a lob, had it been on target, would have been a remarkable
opener for England.
Shearer had a much better opportunity to open
the scoring following an in-swinging Beckham corner that he headed just
wide of the far post. Ayala looked to have tugged at Shearer while he
jumped and the captain was unable to head on target for what proved to
be his best scoring chance of the night. A half-hearted shout for a
penalty a few minutes later for a dubious challenge by Sensini in the
six-yard box marked the effective end of Shearer’s striking role in
the game and his eventual substitution on 78 minutes closed another ineffectual performance.
Heskey’s attacking athleticism,
on the other hand, was clearly making life uncomfortable for Argentina
in general and Sensini in particular. During one pause in the game (when
Heskey had fallen awkwardly) two of the Argentinean players raced to the
touch-line for an impromptu discussion with the coach. Several minutes
later Sensini gave way to Pochettino in a tactical substitution. It is
rare to see substitutions in the first half except for an injury and it
is a clear testament to Heskey as a surprise package that he provoked
such a move. It says much about Argentina’s strengths that they are
prepared to sacrifice their captain after only half and hour;
unfortunately, it says much about their weakness and arrogance that they
didn’t care enough to find anything out about Emile Heskey before the
Kevin Keegan is clearly not convinced about
which role to play Beckham in. His wide position is established at club
level and he has proven to be one of the best crossers of the ball from
the right. His credentials as a central midfield playmaker are less
distinguished and despite encouraging signs he gives the ball away far
too easily and does not have the defensive qualities such an important
position demands. Dennis Wise seems better balanced in this role and his
season with Chelsea this year suggests that Keegan is more likely to
persist with him in the centre rather than Beckham. Certainly his
performance in this game has given him every reason to expect that a
squad place is there for the taking. His temperamental side was
fleetingly glimpsed when he was unnecessarily booked only 35 seconds
into the second half for a late challenge on Cristian Gonzales.
Despite the question mark as a
central midfielder, Beckham started and nearly finished England’s best
move of the whole game midway through the first half. He dispossessed
Ortega 20 yards into the England half, Wise tidied up and passed to Campbell, who quickly found Wilcox on the left. His long pass to
Heskey was beautifully chested off to Shearer, who laid a firm pass on
to the stretching Beckham running into the ‘D’ of the penalty area.
Beckham’s badly mistimed touch sent Ayala tumbling to the ground in
Although not a natural goalscorer, Beckham has one
further talent that sets him apart from other players--his ability to
use the dead ball. His 35-yard effort on 25 minutes had Cavellero
scampering across to see the ball whistle by the upright. Only Alan
Shearer during his peak could rival Beckham for free kicks and this
element of his game will prove to be a vital weapon in England's armoury
during Euro 2000.
By contrast, David Seaman only had one save to
make in the first half. Batistuta, battling near the touch-line against
Dyer and Keown, set up a delightful short pass to Gonzales, who slipped
past Southgate and fired a fierce snap shot which surprised Seaman. He
could only parry the shot upwards and properly save it on his second touch.
For all the hype surrounding Batistuta’s
talents as a goal scorer, it was the diminutive Daniel Ortega who
provided the most imaginative plays for the South Americans. His
low centre of gravity coupled with breathtaking ball control ensured
that England never had it all their own way. Batistuta was for the most
part a quiet and forlorn figure standing alone by the centre circle.
With the exception of Tony Adams, the trio of Sol Campbell, Martin Keown and Gareth Southgate
represent the finest defensive team Kevin Keegan has at his disposal.
Keown in particular is at the peak of his game and his substitution at
halftime through injury, although lamented, gave everyone the chance to
see another England prospect, Rio Ferdinand.
Ferdinand has wonderful ball skills and a cool
head rarely matched by players with double his playing years under their
belt. Despite all these attributes, he lacks experience. Playing cheeky
passes across your own penalty area may make wonderful television during
a friendly but becomes a massive liability during a tournament. His
temperament and skill is reminiscent of Liverpool and Derby’s Mark
Wright, and Keegan needs to nurture his excellent talent.
Cristian Gonzales provided Argentina’s best
scoring chance in the first half and continued to conjure up
opportunities in the second. An acute low shot to the near post had
Seaman getting down smartly to save and his 30 yard ‘grass-cutter’
on 77 minutes only missed the England keeper’s far post by inches.
Batistuta’s inevitable departure made room for
the in-form and very dangerous Parma striker Hernan Crespo. His arrival
almost secured a win for the visitors when Ortega, doing well to stay on
his feet, crossed to the currently on-loan Arsenal defender Nelson Vivas
to head down into Crespo's path. His wild and somewhat comical miskick came
within inches of putting an artificial gloss on Argentina’s
Paul Scholes had one of his quietest matches in
an England shirt. Known for his tenacious tackling and excellent
midfield goal-scoring record, he hardly featured in
the game at any stage. His recent return from a hernia operation and
lack of match fitness seemed an acceptable excuse for his performance, but the
tactical ploy of pushing the ball over the top to Emile Heskey did much
more to squeeze him out of the game. His best performances come when he
plays in the hole behind the front two, but the system of long
balls forward and short balls wide will severely limit his capacity to
damage opponents by ghosting into the penalty area.
Andy Cole must be wondering what he has to do to
force a place in Keegan’s starting eleven. His treble-winning efforts
for Manchester United and his excellent Premiership scoring record this
season ought to make him an automatic choice, but somehow Kevin Keegan,
like his predecessors, cannot find it within himself to play him (or
even pick him for the squad) regularly. Within a minute of his appearance against
Argentina, he had forced the only real save of the night from Cavellaro
after a deft through ball from Ray Parlour. Those who remember Cole’s
first-ever England appearance as a substitute against Uruguay may also
remember he hit the bar with a header on his first effort. Had that gone
in, one wonders if he might not have partnered Alan Shearer a bit
more frequently over the years. Cole may go to the European Championship as one of the five nominated strikers; history suggests
only a bit part awaits.
Kevin Philips, like Heskey, lacks big
match experience and is generally unproven on the international scene.
The 12 minutes he was given to show his skills were not enough to gauge
his potential. His scoring prowess and attacking appetite are not in
question but his capacity to damage opponents and beat top quality
international defenders has yet to be witnessed. England’s encounter
against Brazil in May looks to be his best chance to show what he is
England and Argentina left
Wembley with honours even. How sides perform at tournament level
is, of course, what distinguishes good sides from great ones. England
will need to perform several notches above their current level to
compete with the likes of Germany, Portugal and Romania come June.
it is a disappointment that England’s next match is nearly three
months away, their opponents, Brazil, unquestionably the best side in
the world, may provide the best pointer yet to England’s prospects for
a successful campaign in 2000. - JB