Bitter memory drives Neville

Needing a draw from a football match is better than having to win but has complications of its own. So England must be on their guard against a physically strong Croatia side at the Estadio da Luz tomorrow evening. The position invites comparison with the last European Championship finals, and there are a sufficient number of survivors in the squad - eight in all - to ensure that the word is passed around.

Needing a draw from a football match is better than having to win but has complications of its own. So England must be on their guard against a physically strong Croatia side at the Estadio da Luz tomorrow evening. The position invites comparison with the last European Championship finals, and there are a sufficient number of survivors in the squad - eight in all - to ensure that the word is passed around.

Just as in this competition, England suffered a demoralising opening defeat after holding the lead (2-3 against Portugal four years ago) then redeemed themselves with a deserved victory (Alan Shearer's goal beating Germany). "All" that was therefore required was to avoid defeat against Romania, but another see-saw of a match was level at 2-2 with Kevin Keegan's team holding on desperately, until Phil Neville tripped Viorel Moldovan in the 89th minute, Ioan Ganea scoring from the penalty spot and sending England home.

One defeat later, Keegan resigned, and the effect on the Neville family was traumatic too. Phil was reviled by supporters throughout the land and did not receive another cap for almost a year. Brother Gary, who tried to encourage his younger sibling, recalls a depressing period for both and is keen to ensure that in an identical situation this week there is no repetition of the outcome: "I remember Euro 2000 vividly. Lost the first game, euphoric after the second when we beat Germany and need a point to go through. These games can bring their own difficulties. Fifteen minutes to go and it's 1-1, do you stick or twist? That's a position I hope we're not in.

"We'd beaten Germany and everybody thought 'here we go', and four days later we're out of the competition. That could happen on Monday, we've got to be realistic, they're a good side. If it's 0-0 or 1-1 in the last 10 or 15 minutes it'll get very nervy."

Shearer or no Shearer (he gave up international football immediately after the tournament), Neville is justifiably convinced that the present side is a more effective one and should avoid the same fate: "We're a lot better than four years ago, everyone can see that. We've got much more about us, more quality, we're a bigger threat, with more penetration. We may not do anything in this tournament, though it won't be through lack of focus and preparation and effort. But I'm wary that football can just kick you in the teeth. Who's to say on Monday we won't get a couple of bad refereeing decisions, won't get somebody sent off?"

The finale against France was one such kick and the only bad decision by any official may have been the one by Sven Goran Eriksson that took Wayne Rooney from the field to be replaced by Emile Heskey. If wholesale criticism of the three substitutions that night was unfair (Michael Owen was having another bad game and Paul Scholes was injured), it is legitimate to emphasise Eriksson's instinctive reaction in such circumstances. Like a true Swede, he remains calm and ostensibly in control, but in the internal battle of nationalities, it is the Italian football man who comes out on top.

It should never be forgotten that England's head coach spent no fewer than 13 and a half years in Italy, the last eight and a half of them immediately before taking his present job. At Roma, Fiorentina, Sampdoria and Lazio, winning matches was all very nice, but the essential thing was not to lose them. It was one thing as a coach in Portugal demanding a more positive approach at Benfica (his first job after leaving Sweden), where there were three big clubs and the rest rolled over; trying a 4-3-3 formation at Lazio lasted a month.

So when the crunch comes, towards the end of critical games, Eriksson's natural instinct is to stick, not twist. Sometimes it works - England hold on for a critical 1-0 win over Argentina in the World Cup, defending desperately. Sometimes it fails - France finally make their incessant pressure tell. It would be beneficial if during one of the heart-to-heart talks that seem to be a feature of life with Team England, the senior players reminded the coach that English mentality is not Italian mentality and neither, if Neville and company are honest, is English defending.

But it is good to talk, in any workplace, as long as there is clear understanding of who is having the final say. Much of the drama surrounding tales of "player power" (a lazy phrase first minted in the days of union-bashing some 30 years ago) has been overblown.

However it came about, England have worked for the past three games with the same system, picking the best four midfield players and constructing the pattern from there, rather than putting the tactical cart before the horse. All four have had to adapt their game to some extent, but a consistency has been achieved and as at the World Cup, Eriksson has scarcely tinkered with the team, while making almost exactly the same three substitutions in each of last week's games.

So now for Croatia, who are likely to prove stubborn but beatable. Erratic at the World Cup two years ago (defeating Italy but losing to Mexico and Ecuador) with the Davor Suker generation long past its peak, they struggled past Slovenia in a play-off to qualify, then failed miserably to beat Switzerland's 10 men before rallying for a deserved draw against France. Monaco's Dado Prso has emerged as Suker's successor and if the wonderful chance in the final minute against the French had fallen to him, not Portsmouth's Ivica Mornar, Group B would have a very different shape this morning.

England, for one thing, would need a win tomorrow to be certain of qualifying. "When you have to win, it's always more difficult mentally," Eriksson said yesterday. But he will have no truck with the strong argument that it would be better to finish second in this group than top, probably playing a quarter-final against the Group A winners Greece instead of Portugal or Spain and then, if successful, staying in Lisbon for the first semi-final, with its extra day's rest before the final. "I don't know which would be the more difficult out of those three [opponents]," he said. "Spain and Portugal are technically good, Greece technically good and very strong."

Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves with such talk. As Gary Neville will remind anyone who cares to listen over the next two days: "These are the times of our lives. All I'm seeing is the next game. We've got to focus on Croatia and we've just got to be careful now."

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