Football World Cup: The chance to forge a legend

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LYONS HAS its food, Bordeaux its wine and Paris its monuments. St Etienne has none of these but, in the context of a World Cup, it has something more precious. It is famous for the great deeds of its footballers.

Tonight, in a stadium billed in the local tourist board as possessing a "mythical" status by virtue of the triumphs it has hosted, England hope to create a legend of their own.

On to the pelouse once graced by Dominique Rocheteau, Michel Platini and Dominique Bathenay will tread Michael Owen, David Beckham and Alan Shearer. Up to 20,000 England fans will turn the "Chaudron Vert" into a "Chaudron Blanc", and a 12-year-old grievance will be addressed.

Maradona is gone, a sad shell of his former genius, but the modern Argentina stand in England's way. Gabriel Batistuta, Ariel Ortega and Juan Veron bar the path to the last eight and England's third quarter-final in four World Cups.

It could be a classic match: two in-form teams full of attacking players and fluid movement. It could also be very tight, with each side cancelling each other out.

"Argentina play deeper than Colombia," Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, said. "They play three at the back and stretch the pitch. It would be impossible to hunt the ball down for 90 minutes the way we did against Colombia. Our approach may have to be different but you can sometimes change the shape of the team rather than the personnel."

This, and the usual whispers, has led to a general belief that Hoddle will field the same 11 which started against Colombia but with Graeme Le Saux dropping back more often in a flexible back three or four. Tony Adams is likely to stay the spare man, with Sol Campbell picking up Batistuta. An alternative is for Adams to mark Batistuta and Sol Campbell pick up Ortega when he moves forward.

"Like all great strikers Batistuta can smell the goal around the 18-yard box," Hoddle said. "His movement is excellent and, like all [Daniel] Passarella's players, he is disciplined and gets on with his work."

Batistuta only came back into the team recently after a long dispute with Passarella, a disciplinarian who counts a dislike of long hair and homosexuals among his rigid beliefs. Many of his players have been with him a long time, having been developed by Passarella at River Plate. Although the goalkeeper, Carlos Roa, does not look confident, Argentina have not conceded a goal in eight games.

Though Batistuta and Ortega catch the eye, Veron is the key player, a mixture of graft and class which sums up the team. His father, also Juan Veron, may be familiar to older Manchester United fans. A prolific striker known as "The Witch", he played for the ruthless Estudiantes team which kicked United off the park in the 1968-69 World Club Championship.

Passarella's Argentina have no truck with such behaviour though they are, admits the coach, "more pragmatic than spectacular". Like Hoddle he is proud of his team's ability to produce the best in adversity.

Yesterday the teams trained at the refurbished Stade Geoffroy Guichard, modernised at the cost of pounds 10m, all from the public purse. Then, as Englishmen wandered outside carrying desperate cardboard banners bearing the plea "Cherche billet, s.v.p.", the coaches took turn to sweat under the television lights of the press conference.

As each question was laboriously translated into English, French and Spanish, Hoddle, his hair slicked back after a quick post-training shower, stared straight ahead, swigging from a bottle of mineral water. He attempted a couple of jokes, which were lost in translation, but stuck mainly to giving a rousing message of confidence.

"We'll give it 110 per cent for the country; the bigger the challenge the better we play. There is no tension, just a positive streak running right through the team and staff. A lot of people will fancy Argentina but we do not feel we are underdogs."

Two hours later, as the hot afternoon sun began to fade, Argentina took to the pitch. They looked relaxed, finishing the session with a game of netball, played with all 22 players and coaches inside one penalty area, in which goals could only be scored by headers. It looked, to English eyes, like a stunt suggesting they were practising their handiwork for another "Hand of God" goal but they do it at every session. Ominously the game was won with a header from Batistuta.

England will wear all white. "Just as we did when we beat Argentina in 1966," Hoddle said. Tonight, before the hullabaloo begins, the coach will find a brief moment to sit in peace. "You don't get much time alone in this tournament," he confided. "There is always a decision to be taken, but this is something I have always done, as a player and a coach. It is a chance to get cool."

Hoddle, who won 56 caps, added: "Potentially this team can be better than any of the England teams I played in. It lacks experience but in four years' time the likes of Campbell, Neville, Scholes and Owen are going to be very experienced at this level.

"The World Cup is a chance to pit yourself at the highest level. I've played in it, and I've coached in it. It is a massive task but it is better than being on the beach watching it."

ENGLAND (probable): Seaman; Neville, Adams, Campbell, Le Saux; Anderton, Beckham, Ince, Scholes; Owen, Shearer.

Allez Les Verts, page 29