Argentina the greatest threat as Eriksson's luck runs out

Toughest group of all awaits English lions but Republic have opportunity to make progress
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The Independent Football

Like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now David Beckham wanted a mission. To atone further for his sins the gods of football have given him one. A real choice mission. One to leave even Sven Goran Eriksson pondering "the horror, the horror".

Like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now David Beckham wanted a mission. To atone further for his sins the gods of football have given him one. A real choice mission. One to leave even Sven Goran Eriksson pondering "the horror, the horror".

On the eve of Saturday's World Cup draw Beckham had said: "I would love the chance to play against the Argentines again for obvious reasons." In Pusan, South Korea, Beckham's wish was granted, but with a sting. To gasps from the audience England were not only paired with South America's best, they also face Sweden, one of Europe's most obdurate teams, and Nigeria, Africa's most potent side.

All over England Group F was met with the F-word. Adam Crozier, the Football Association's chief executive, spoke for many when he said: "David was desperate to get Argentina at some stage. I wish he hadn't prayed so hard." Beckham's own response was more upbeat: "I can't wait," he said. "It's a great chance to lay the ghost of '98. You always want to test yourself against the best."

It seemed that the draw could not have been harder. Until we studied the small print. It then became clear that, should England qualify, but fail to win the group, their path to the final is likely to be barred by France, Brazil, and Argentina again. Perhaps Eriksson is not a lucky manager after all.

The Irish, as Mick McCarthy admitted when he declined Eriksson's offer to swap, have been more fortunate. Germany, though not as bad as England made them look in Munich, are not the force they were; Saudi Arabia are on a par with the Iranian side Ireland dispatched in the play-off; Cameroon, though Olympic champions, rarely play to their pedigree.

Elsewhere the co-hosts, Japan and South Korea, have benefited from their seeding; Brazil, France and Portugal should have no problems emerging from their groups; and there is a great opportunity for Turkey or Costa Rica to make the last eight for the first time.

But the eye keeps coming back to Group F. Partisanship aside it is a mouth-watering one, which promises to provide the most dramatic games of the opening stages. England will open up at Saitama, just north of Tokyo, at 6.30am UK time – which will be a steaming early-afternoon in Japan. Their opponents, Sweden, have not been beaten by England since 1968 and are currently on an 18-match unbeaten run stretching back to last August.

Argentina's last defeat, in Brazil, was even further back. They have since won 10 matches, including one against Italy in Rome, and drawn four. England face them in Sapporo. Like the game in St Etienne, where Michael Owen first achieved global fame, and Beckham national notoriety, it will be an evening encounter. It will also be indoors, the Sapporo Dome having a roof.

England close out the group in the industrial city of Osaka where a mid-afternoon kick-off means they will again have to combat the heat as well as their opponents. As Nigeria should cope better with the conditions, forecast to be 80F with 70 per cent humidity, England will hope they will by then be discouraged or, as so often, riven with internal dissent.

Eriksson has an early opportunity to check out the Super Eagles for they play Senegal, who make a daunting World Cup bow in the opening game against France, in Lagos on 20 December. He may prefer to wait until next month's African Nations Cup. Nigeria have been paired with Algeria, Liberia and the hosts, Mali, in another tough group.

Eriksson knows all about the Swedes but will doubtless have their warm-ups against Greece, Switzerland and Norway watched. Argentina can be observed at close hand in Dublin when they play the Irish in April. They had also been pencilled in to complete England's spring programme, but Paraguay are now in line to follow the Netherlands and Italy.

Those three fixtures are likely to be the only opportunities Eriksson has to experiment before selecting his World Cup squad. He has until 21 May to confirm the party but is expected to name it earlier to avoid the traumatic scenes which accompanied Glenn Hoddle's culling of Paul Gascoigne and others in La Manga prior to France '98. However, in case of injury Eriksson may take stand-by players when England leave for their training camp on the South Korean island of Cheju, in mid-May.

Eriksson hopes to play two more friendlies while at Cheju, probably against Cameroon and Thailand. However, Fifa regulations may force them to play Cameroon in England before heading east. The squad will then move to the Japanese island of Awaji, just south of Kobe. This, it is hoped, will provide a secluded location with England booking the Westin, the only major hotel on the island. Since all their matches, however far they progress, will be in Japan they will remain there, flying to matches by chartered aircraft.

The Republic of Ireland, who will move to South Korea if they reach the knock-out stages, plan to base themselves near Izumo in southern Japan, where temperatures are hotter, before moving north for their group matches.

McCarthy, who saw Saudi Arabia while preparing for his team's qualifying play-off can watch them again in next month's Gulf Cup. He may also join Eriksson in Mali to scout Cameroon.

The Irish, should they progress, are likely to run into Spain or Paraguay in the second round followed by Italy or Portugal in the quarter-finals. It is hard to see them going further, but even that may be a longer tenure than an England team ludicrously priced at 10-1 (Portugal are 12-1).

Eriksson was sanguine about England's fate. "We are in the most difficult group, no doubt about that at all," he said. "They are all very good teams. But everything is possible. We can beat any team in the world on a good day."

True enough but while England remain bedevilled by inconsistency they cannot be considered, given the draw, as genuine contenders. They will need to make a good start against Sweden to gain momentum then defeat Argentina. Winning the group ought to provide a negotiable path to the last four but only if Beckham, Owen, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and David Seaman all play to their peak is that likely.

At this distance, the semi-final line-up looks like being France v Argentina and Italy v Portugal with the former tie providing the eventual winner. However, there is a long way to go and someone, like Bulgaria and Sweden in 1994, and Croatia in 1998, is sure to upset the élite.

COUNTDOWN TO THE FINALS

ENGLAND SCHEDULE

13 February: v Netherlands (Amsterdam)
27 March: v Italy (Elland Road, Leeds)
17 April: (tbc) v Paraguay (St James' Park, Newcastle)
1 May: Announce initial 35-man squad
11 May: Premiership ends
12 May: Eriksson names 23-man squad, to include three goalkeepers, plus travelling reserves
15 May: European Cup final (Hampden Park, Glasgow)
16 May*: Preparation begins at Bisham Abbey
18 May*: Squad plus reserves fly to island of Cheju, South Korea
20-25 May*: Possible friendlies in Sogwipo, Cheju. Cameroon and Thailand among potential opponents
21 May: Confirmation deadline for squad
26 May*: England move to island of Awaji, Japan
31 May: World Cup begins
2 June: England open World Cup campaign against Sweden in Saitama

*Dates subject to confirmation.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND SCHEDULE

13 February: v Russia (Lansdowne Road, Dublin)
27 March: v Denmark (Lansdowne Road, Dublin)
17 April: v Argentina (Lansdowne Road, Dublin)
1 May: Announce initial 35-man squad
11 May: Premiership ends
18 May: (tbc) v Nigeria (Lansdowne Road, Dublin)
21 May: Confirmation deadline for squad
22 May: (tbc) training camp in Izumo, Japan

Reactions to the draw

Do you want to swap?
The England coach Sven Goran Eriksson to his Ireland counterpart Mick McCarthy after the World Cup draw.

No chance.
McCarthy.

This group is the killer zone.
Shaibu Amodu, coach of Nigeria, drawn in England's group.

Argentina are good but why can't we beat them? We will have to be in good shape, but I think we have a very, very good team ourselves.
Eriksson.

England have got a good chance. Everybody can beat everybody.
Arsène Wenger, Arsenal manager.

Argentina against England was the most beautiful game of the last World Cup. Maybe the same game will be the most beautiful next year.
Argentina's national team director Jose Pekerman.

I don't see any major hurdles. There is no doubt in my mind. We will qualify for the second round.
Prince Esoka Ndoki Mukete of the Cameroon Federation.

At least we haven't got a killer group like England.
Rudi Völler, Germany coach, after being drawn in Ireland's group.

Rudi, this wonderful group is an early Christmas present for us.
Paul Breitner, former German international, in 'Bild am Sonntag'.

We've got a tough group but, as we always say, we're going to dance with the prettiest one.
Hernan Dario Gomez, coach of Ecuador, drawn in Italy's group.

WORLD CUP ODDS

CORAL: 4-1 France. 9-2 Argentina. 6-1 Brazil. 13-2 Italy. 10-1 England, Spain. 12-1 Portugal. 14-1 Germany. 33-1 Poland, Paraguay, 40-1 Croatia, Russia, Cameroon. 66-1 Nigeria, Japan, Republic of Ireland, Belgium, Uruguay, Turkey, Ecuador. 80-1 Denmark, Sweden, Slovenia. 100-1 South Africa. 125-1 Mexico, Costa Rica, USA. 150-1 South Korea, Tunisia. 200-1 China, Saudi Arabia. 300-1 Senegal. Group F: 8-11 Argentina. 2-1 England. 8-1 Nigeria. 9-1 Sweden. Group E: 8-13 Germany. 10-3 Cameroon. 4-1 Republic of Ireland. 14-1 Saudi Arabia. 1-3 England to qualify for second round.

WILLIAM HILL: 4-1 Argentina. 5-1 Italy. 11-2 France. 8-1 Brazil. Spain. 10-1 England, Germany. 11-1 Portugal. 33-1 Cameroon. 40-1 Paraguay. 50-1 Croatia, Nigeria, Poland. 66-1 Ecuador, Mexico, Japan, Republic of Ireland, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden. 80-1 Belgium, Russia. 100-1 Turkey. 125-1 Denmark, Uruguay. 150-1 Slovenia, USA. 250-1 Costa Rica, China, Senegal, Tunisia. 300-1 Saudi Arabia.

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