Beckham puts England back on track
England's celebrity value in world football was amply demonstrated here in Tallinn on Wednesday night. The front page of Postimees, the biggest quality newspaper in Estonia was given over to pictures of the visiting England squad. 'England arrive', was the headline, as if they might have got lost on their way to the airport. The stunning 2-1 victory for Estonia in the supporters game staged on the afternoon of the match was also given prominent coverage.
An increase in security and the thorough frisking given to journalists on their way into the ground caused a few raised eyebrows as well - that hadn't happened in Tallinn before. Given that the game against Russia in March preceded an international incident between the two countries and an organised attack on Estonia considered by some experts to be the first instance of large scale cyberwarfare against a NATO country, it gives some idea of the importance of David Beckham's return and the arrival of England's footballers in Estonia.
There were other things on the minds of Estonia's footballing public though, it wasn't simply a case of turning out to see England. The Estonian Football Association presents the 'silverball' trophy to the player judged to have scored the best goal for Estonia in the calendar year, and this year there have been slim pickings for the judges. No pickings at all, in fact, the Estonian national team being goalless in 2007.
There are still two games against Andorra to come - so there should be at least one Estonian goal this year – but Estonian football fans are a little worried that their goal of the year might be a goalmouth scramble, or maybe a penalty. Last year Tarmo Neemelo won it with a header from three yards out. Such is life for the minnows of UEFA.
England boss Steve Mclaren had been anxious to ensure Peter Crouch would play at the Le Coq Arena, as it was felt he was more suited to this type of opponent. His competitive goals for England have come against teams of a similar stature - Trinidad and Tobago, Andorra and Macedonia.
Estonia manager Jelle Goes, who announced after the match that he would leave Estonia after his contract ends in November, was sanguine in defeat after the gangly striker scored the second goal. 'How can you defend an Eiffel Tower like Crouch?' he asked. 'You can climb on his neck but then it's a penalty.'
This is not to diminish England's victory, they scored more goals in Tallinn than the other contenders in the Group E, but the fact is that this was a routine victory and everyone in the England camp knew it.
It's a strange trait of football managers that the more pressure they are under, the smilier they get. Steve Mclaren was grinning widely before the game as he watched the players warm up, occasionally smoothing his hair for the cameras and waving to (possibly imaginary) friends in the crowd. After the game he was curt and dismissive, saying questions about Beckham's future inclusion were 'not for tonight'.
Which is all very well, but what message does it send to the rest of the squad? That the manager does not trust them to deal with tiny Baltic countries, but beating Russia home and away might be different? The recall of Beckham, looked at in purely tactical terms, was a success. But it poses some awkward questions about the manager's judgment and about his confidence in his Europe-based players, and indeed his confidence in Beckham given his refusal to commit to including him in future squads. 'Lets just enjoy the win,' he simply said
|“||How can you defend an Eiffel Tower like Crouch? 'You can climb on his neck but then it's a penalty. ”|
|Estonia coach, Jelle Goes|
So Steve Mclaren is happy with three points and three goals from what he said was 'always going to be a tough game.' He was rather less forthcoming about what he can do to mitigate the effects of England's poor performances so far. His answers about Beckham's continued inclusion were baffling, given that it was such a humiliating U-turn for him. Unless he believes Estonia to be such a dangerous team that they require special measures, it looks rather like he may have been using Beckham to secure his own position and avoid any embarrassing slip-ups, before reverting to what he privately believes is the best squad selection for England.
Michael Owen has no such worries. He is safe in the knowledge that he will be picked no matter what, as the new holder of the record for competitive England goals. He looked slightly off the pace against Estonia, struggling to hold the ball up and make the right pass. After making 13 appearances for Newcastle United in two years, Owen might be on his way to a new club and he obviously intends to use England games to increase his visibility.
'I idolised Gary Lineker as a kid and to break that record is fantastic,' he said after entering the record books. Newcastle will be pleased at increasing the resale value of their injury prone striker. Freddy Shepherd was caught on camera recently offering to 'fucking carry him back' to Liverpool, possibly believing the Chester-born striker to be incapable of getting there independently.
Goes was asked about likely qualifiers from the group. His answer twisted and turned and tried to be polite, but in the end it boiled down to the fact that it's probably between England, Croatia and Russia. He was careful to point out that not everyone is under as much pressure as the England manager. His compatriot Guus Hiddink is building a young Russian team and therefore 'qualifying for the Euros isn't a priority, as I understand it.'
Of course, England have no such luxury and McClaren knows he has to beat Russia, Israel and Croatia to stand a chance. Mclaren would do well to look at what has preceded him. Beckham often saves England in qualifying and then the nation sweats on the fitness of him and Owen. To all intents and purposes Beckham is back and will outlast Mclaren. It would take a very brave or a very foolhardy manager to drop him after the last two games. We'll see if Mclaren fits either of those descriptions.