Football: Now for the plan of Hodd

England's coach claims Argentina are his preferred opponents as he seeks to avenge the misdeeds of '86
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The Independent Online
HANDS UP all those Englishmen who wanted Argentina, rather than Croatia, in the second round of the World Cup? As we thought. The only one raised belongs to Glenn Hoddle.

"My first thought on qualifying from the group was that Argentina were the team I wanted to play," said the England coach yesterday in the aftermath of Friday night's 2-0 win over Colombia. "We are better off when we play a big country."

Hoddle's logic is that England will be the underdogs for the match in St Etienne on Tuesday night. "The trouble is that everyone expects us to beat countries like Croatia, but the expectation level then becomes sky-high and the pressure mounts," he said.

Unfortunately for England, history tends not to support Hoddle's theory as the record shows that, while they regularly triumph amid teams in the second tier of the world game, they mostly struggle against the elite nations who have won the World Cup; those who, unlike themselves, have won it more than once, that is.

The two most notorious occasions have been in 1966 and 1986. In 1966, a goal by the not-yet-Sir Geoff Hurst took England into the semi-finals and led to the not-yet-Sir Alf Ramsey calling the Argentinians "animals". Then in 1986, Diego Maradona's vengeful handiwork guided Argentina to a semi- final on their way towards winning the trophy.

Thus does this week's game come not so much with baggage attached as a whole reclaim carousel. "I don't like the word revenge, but we all know what happened in '86," said the England coach. "I played in that game and naturally I want to beat them this time round. There is still a little bit of a sour taste about the way we lost that match. We now have an opportunity to reverse that situation, and sometimes in life you don't get that kind of chance."

So great is the game's resonance - probably making it the most serious struggle of the second round - that, as the England players were making their way back to the team bus from the dressing-room late on Friday night, even Michael Owen was being asked for his memories of the "Hand of God" game. He was six at the time. Duly he obliged but he recalled, too, Maradona's marvellous solo second. This boy could go far, on and off the field.

"At the end of the day it's a football match," Hoddle added, seeking to keep things in perspective. "And there are fresh people involved." He also detects a fresh approach to the Argentinians.

"They are a class side," he said. "They are very experienced, have a good system, are very disciplined now, and they have not always had that. The big difference now, from 12 years ago, is that they do not quite have a Maradona, but then who has?"

What Argentina do have again is a strong defence and a clearly expert one. So well have they adapted to the modern regulations that, with England, they headed the Fair Play table for the fewest yellow cards after the first round, a far cry from 1990 when a shameful performance in the final, which saw two of their number sent off, led to Fifa's clampdown on bad tackling.

Argentina's change of approach has been achieved, too, without compromising their solidity, as they were the only side to come through the group stages without conceding a goal. Throw in Gabriel Batistuta, a contender with four goals for the Golden Boot, and Ariel Ortega up front and it becomes easy to see why they are many people's favourites to win the whole tournament.

Against Colombia, though, England revealed themselves as a considerable attacking power in their own right, with Owen compensating for Alan Shearer's subdued state, and it is to be hoped they retain the same self-belief, determination and lack of inhibition, which was epitomised by David Beckham, for Tuesday's match.

"Get your aggressive heads on," Hoddle told his team in the dressing- room on Friday, and the advice holds good for the next game. "We know that one bad performance now and we are out of the competition," said Shearer. "Hopefully, we got ours out of the way against Romania."

Paul Ince is likely to have recovered from his niggling ankle knock to take his place in what should be an unchanged team. And his confrontation in midfield with Juan Veron of Sampdoria, against whom Ince played in Italy when he was with Internazionale of Milan, is likely to be crucial.

England will also need to find a way of ensuring that Tony Adams, until now the spare man in the back three, is the one who mostly deals with Batistuta, a powerful striker of the sort he prefers, and is not exposed to the nippy Ortega, the type of which he is not especially enamoured.

Above all, though, England need again to ensure that Owen receives the ball in the areas in which he can do most damage, by running at, or behind, the Argentinian defence. The quality of supply from Beckham and Paul Scholes once more will be vital.

Despite all Hoddle's assertions, Croatia would clearly have represented less demanding opposition and, having finished runners-up in their group, England also find themselves in the same, more difficult, half of the draw as Brazil, Nigeria, Holland and Yugoslavia.

There is a feeling, though, that after last time Argentina owe England something. Of course they will not see it that way and nor did Shearer when the point was put to him. "We owe ourselves one, more importantly," said England's captain.

Cry freedom, pages 26 and 27