Craig Brown: Substitute Crespo reveals strength of Bielsa's squad

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The Independent Football

As someone who has been invariably cynical of the punditry without responsibility enjoyed by the media, I confess to a massive feeling of guilt as I enjoy the pleasures of Korean hospitality and courtesy, not to mention the privilege of no accountability for any errors in judgement.

As someone who has been invariably cynical of the punditry without responsibility enjoyed by the media, I confess to a massive feeling of guilt as I enjoy the pleasures of Korean hospitality and courtesy, not to mention the privilege of no accountability for any errors in judgement.

Hitherto he was "Sven''. Now he has become "Eriksson''. The crime which has brought this about? A failure to demolish Sweden in Saitama? Questionable team selection? Poor substitutions? Too many long balls played forward too early? People should remember that the Hindsight XI is the easiest to select and Sven (I shall continue to call him that) had few critics prior to the match. Sweden, moreover, are always opponents worthy of respect.

A draw in the opening encounter may eventually not prove too detrimental to England, especially if something is obtained against Argentina on Friday. The South Americans were impressive in their opening game against Nigeria and their narrow victory was thoroughly deserved.

My favourite player of the last decade, Gabriel Batistuta, confirmed the Nigerian vulnerability in the air by heading the winning goal before he was substituted, to be replaced by, of all people, Hernan Crespo. That's what I call strength in depth. Crespo on the bench! To think, also, that the coach, Marcelo Bielsa, could afford to substitute his captain, Juan Sebastian Veron, confirms that he is no respecter of fancy reputations. If not performing to standard, no matter the player's status, he is removed.

What impressed me most of all was the attitude of those substituted. Both Batistuta and Veron exchanged warm greetings with their respective replacements, as did Ronaldo and Luizão for Brazil and David Beckham with Kieron Dyer. Contrast that with the petulance of Turkey's Yildiray Basturk when Ilhan Mansiz took his place. A sulking substitute is to be deplored and provides evidence of suspect group dynamics in a squad.

This early, of course, every competing team remains full of anticipation, even Saudi Arabia, who were embarrassed by the eight-goal defeat at the hands of Germany. This is the third time in a row they have imploded in the opening stages of a major tournament. The trend began in France '98, when, after an excusable 0-1 defeat by Denmark, they lost 0-4 to the hosts and soon to be world champions, France. Exit coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, the Brazilian World Cup winner of 1994. Then, in the Asian Cup two years later, they were dismantled 4-1 by Japan. Exit the former Czech national coach, Milan Macala.

What price the exit door for Nasser Al Johar? The current Saudi coach, a local, is severely handicapped because of a rule preventing his most talented players from playing abroad, the veteran striker Sami Al Jaber's short loan spell at Wolves being an exception. I hate to see managers being replaced and I hoped that the goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea's assurance that his team can still qualify is not misplaced optimism.

In contrast, Germany excelled and surprised me, both with their selection and their performance. Three established stars began on the bench and, again, the rumours of malcontent were not substantiated when Oliver Bierhoff, Jens Jeremies and Oliver Neuville entered the fray with no resentment from those leaving. Maybe, just maybe, Germany are about to peak at the right time. I shall reserve judgement until they face better opposition – and the Republic of Ireland, their opponents today, most definitely come into that category.

Enormous credit is due to Mick McCarthy and his men. Matt Holland's fine goal was scant reward for a superb second-half performance against Cameroon which should have resulted in a victory. Since the draw was made it has always been my contention that Ireland have a better chance of progressing than England. Although the Germans are traditionally formidable opponents, the Irish are in an easier group and, what many people forget, they have some very good players as well as an indomitable team spirit.

From the coaching perspective, I have watched with interest the tactical strategy of each team. Set-piece goals have been at a premium, although Costa Rica's fine short corner, badly defended by China, resulted in a slick goal by Mauricio Wright, his first in 44 games for his country. There was Batistuta's header from a Veron corner and Sol Campbell's great finish from Beckham's immaculate corner kick. Dead ball situations could be one of England's main weapons against Argentina, who do not possess exceptional prowess in the air and will find it difficult to defend against Beckham's precise delivery from corners and free-kicks.

It was a pleasure to be present at the Brazil v Turkey match, when the delights of "the beautiful game'' were in evidence, but the enjoyment was spoiled by the incident involving Hakan Unsal and Rivaldo. What has been forgotten by some in the vilification of Rivaldo is that Hakan Unsal did transgress by aiming the ball at the Brazilian. However, why a player of Rivaldo's standing should react like that mystifies me. He must have been aware the eyes of the world – including those of Fifa's disciplinary committee – would be upon him. If he is banned, the competition would be the poorer for his absence.

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