England 0 Portugal 0: English failure of nerve undermines Sven's last stand

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The Independent Football

His command of the English language has long been imperfect, but Sven Goran Eriksson's last great malapropism as England manager may yet prove to be his most pertinent. "The biggest delusion," was how he described defeat to Portugal. Not quite what he meant to say, but you could not help but nod in agreement.

What England's departing manager meant to describe was his disillusionment with elimination in the World Cup quarter-finals, but his near miss was just as good.

Saturday was when the great delusion of Eriksson's regime finally came to an end - it did not implode, or collapse in dramatic style, it just faded in that inauspicious style peculiar to England teams. Defeat on penalties. And what we are left with is as difficult to define as the rest of Eriksson's regime.

This was the brightest of England's five World Cup performances, a vast improvement on what has gone before but when the fragments of defeat are brought together they point to the same old systemic failures of Eriksson. Wayne Rooney's loss of temper, a dreadful set of penalties, the shortage of strikers and an inability to beat teams at the business end of tournaments. Eriksson never tamed the unpredictable beast that is the England national team and in the end it has done his reputation as much damage as those any of his predecessors.

The penalties are as good a place to start as any, another debilitating collapse of nerve. It is difficult to find a rational answer for why Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher failed other than, perhaps, the weight of history upon them. The unbearable knowledge of their predecessors' failure that sends Englishmen into shoot-outs as reliable footballers and returns them broken and defeated.

This was a match that England's players genuinely believed throughout the 90 minutes and extra time that they would win. "I said at half-time, does anyone get the feeling that they are there for the taking?'" Gary Neville remembered. "Nothing till Ronnie's [Cristiano Ronaldo's] penalty made me think any different and the other players are the same."

England started with a pacey, aggressive rhythm that looked unsustainable in the heat under the closed roof here in Gelsenkirchen and soon two things became clear: that Lampard was not about to shake off the dreadful form that gripped him from the start of this tournament, an erosion of all the confidence that has made him arguably the Premiership's most influential player over the last two years.

The fading of Lampard at this World Cup has been one of England's saddest stories. He had possession stolen from him in the 10th minute by Ronaldo, but it was his failure to impose himself upon the match that grew ever more desperate. Alongside him, David Beckham's influence also dwindled after some early possession with Neville on the right flank and suddenly two of England's midfield were scarcely a factor.

And yet there was Owen Hargreaves. When has an English football crowd, let alone an England crowd who rarely unify behind a single player, chanted the name of a defensive midfielder? He chose a remarkable day to emerge from the shroud of distrust the support has for him. At first you admired his defensive work and then, as the game progressed, you noticed he was doing most of the attacking as well.

Twice in the later stages, Hargreaves summoned more energy from his astonishing reserves to launch runs around the right flank of Portugal's defence, breaking around the full-back Nuno Valente when it seemed impossible that he would cover the ground in time. This was a towering performance in a team that were struggling and will surely change the shape of England's future formations, perhaps even prove decisive in Hargreaves' quest to leave Bayern Munich for the Premiership.

After Beckham's substitution on 52 minutes it was not impossible to think that England at last had the team they wanted. His replacement Aaron Lennon cut in from the right, twisted past three players and squared the ball for Rooney, who missed with his shot before Joe Cole struck the ball over. England looked like a team with width and pace for the nine minutes between Lennon's arrival and Rooney's departure.

Most players who stamp on the groin of an opponent they can barely even see behind them will be given the benefit of the doubt, but when you have previous like Rooney there is simply no escape. Ricardo Carvalho was certainly caught in a tender area by Rooney's boot, but whether the referee, Horacio Elizondo, had quite made up his mind until he saw the striker's push on Ronaldo is unclear.

Eriksson said later that Elizondo had told him that he had seen the stamp take place and that his red card was for that alone. Portugal's reaction to England's reduction to 10 men? Eriksson's counterpart, Luiz Felipe Scolari, replaced his one striker Pauleta with the winger Simao Sabrosa and attempted to stretch England to breaking point.

In the battle against the odds that followed, Peter Crouch distinguished himself alone in attack. He had become the only option left to Eriksson and he scrapped gamely against the Portugal defence. At times England even looked like they might achieve an improbable break-out. This was a frantic last stand in atrocious circumstances, and yet there was cause for hope.

The failure of the penalties, the fact that three great Premiership players lost their nerve at the most crucial time, is not a crime that can be pinned directly on Eriksson. He said once again yesterday that he would take responsibility for "whatever you want" and, ultimately, he will have to carry the can for it all - the great culture of failure that must now wait another two years at least to right itself.

Ronaldo, who put away the winning penalty, may make a convenient villain for some. Eriksson too, although there is no delight to be taken in his further humiliation. "A naïve Englishman," was how Neville despairingly described himself for daring to believe in victory, but he was not alone in that. English football's biggest delusion is a malaise that runs far deeper.

England (4-1-4-1): Robinson; Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole; Hargreaves; Beckham (Lennon, 51 (Carragher, 118)), Gerrard, Lampard, Joe Cole (Crouch, 65); Rooney.

Portugal (4-2-3-1): Ricardo; Miguel, Meira, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente; Maniche, Petit; Figo (Postiga, 86), Tiago (Viana, 74), Ronaldo; Pauleta (Simao, 63).

Referee: H M Elizondo (Argentina).

Booked: England Terry, Hargreaves; Portugal Petit, Ricardo Carvalho.

Sent Off: Rooney (62).

Man of the match: Hargreaves.

How it felt to miss those penalties... and save them

"The fact that three of us missed and not just one means it doesn't isolate any individual - but it does not make it any easier. It's a horrible feeling to be one of those to have missed a penalty."

Frank Lampard

"I have never felt this bad before as a footballer. I just can't get the penalty out of my head. I feel numb. The way I hit a ball, I should score a penalty. I should score. I have taken probably 20 or 30 penalties over the last month and probably scored 95 per cent of them. I tried to do what I did for Liverpool in the FA Cup final but my strike was not accurate enough."

Steven Gerrard

"I am devastated. I took the first one well but the referee didn't blow his whistle and called me back. I didn't realise you had to wait."

Jamie Carragher

"I could see in their eyes which post they were looking at. Obviously you know a little bit about the players from videos and games you have watched, but it's that special moment when you know."

Ricardo, Portugal goalkeeper