England cast aside friendship for opener

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"Every game has its own story," said Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, in a rare moment of lyricism yesterday. He would dearly love to be able to write the script for tomorrow's big game, England's Euro 2004 opener with France, but knows he is but a character in the tale, albeit one with power to influence its direction.

"Every game has its own story," said Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, in a rare moment of lyricism yesterday. He would dearly love to be able to write the script for tomorrow's big game, England's Euro 2004 opener with France, but knows he is but a character in the tale, albeit one with power to influence its direction.

Eriksson added that the storyline can take unexpected twists, that the best-laid plans can go awry. Indeed, when the protagonists are human what no one can predict, not even the players involved, is how individuals will react to the occasion. And this is an unusual international as it is, in many ways, a contest between friends.

There are no strangers in tomorrow's match. The bulk of the French team play, or have played, in the Premiership. Of the exceptions, Zinedine Zidane performs alongside David Beckham in Spain and Bixente Lizarazu with Owen Hargreaves in Germany. Lilian Thuram and David Trezeguet have no English connections but the Champions' League has brought both to Old Trafford and Highbury. After the World Cup defeat to Brazil some England players admitted they had been intimidated by the prospect of playing Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos. Such is the mutual familiarity this ought not to happen this time, but Eriksson has been reminding his team that most of France's blue shirts house past or present dressing-room colleagues.

This may be another reason why, listening between the clichés, it is clear that both teams are primarily concerned with avoiding defeat. Losing the first match is never good and since each expect to defeat the other group opponents, Switzerland and Croatia, who meet in Leiria tomorrow afternoon, winning is not vital. However, both teams are offensively minded and if the match is to be a stalemate it should be an entertaining one. "I think it will be physical in parts with a high tempo but very tactical as well," said Beckham yesterday. "I expect there will be a lot of passion and a few tackles."

Beckham's performance will be closely watched. He has a habit, against left-backs of the highest quality, of failing to impose himself. His opponent, Lizarazu, has been a key player for France for more a decade and his relationship with Zidane, with whom he first played at Bordeaux a dozen years ago, is an axis of the French team. Beckham and Gary Neville have a similar relationship and the duel contest should be fascinating.

So will many other match-ups, not least that in central midfield. Frank Lampard has come late to the equation but could prove a telling addition. One former England manager, in Lisbon for the game, is Terry Venables. Like many coaches Venables feels the midfield holds the key to most matches and he said: "If I were given a choice between picking Lampard and [Steven] Gerrard, or [Claude] Makelele and [Patrick] Vieira, I would pick the English pair." He added of Lampard: "Frank was one of the players who trained with the national squad when I was inviting promising youngsters to join in with training. I remember he wanted to be the man. He didn't just want to pass the ball, he wanted it back. He wanted to boss the midfield."

One caveat is that Lampard and Gerrard have not worked in harness long and are both offensive players. If they fail to communicate defensively Zidane and Robert Pires will find the space to punish England.

Gerrard is confident that will not happen. He said: "It's been working really well together which has surprised me with us both liking to go forward but we can both defend as well. It's getting the right mix. I'm a little bit more defensive than Frank. He likes getting into the box more. The manager has told us only one of us can go and the other has to be really disciplined. It's about communication but we're both experienced players. We know when to go and when to stay. It's a matter of not getting carried away and leaving gaps."

To judge from the hundreds of journalists who besieged England's media centre yesterday the match has captured the attention of Europe. This is partly the Beckham effect, but also the sense that both teams are real contenders. This, of course, adds to the pressure on Eriksson who was asked, before a ball has been kicked, whether he thought "people back home" would call for his head if England failed to meet expectations.

"Maybe they will but that is part of the job," he said. "People have asked for my head in the past but it is still there. Am I on trial? I have been on trial the last 22 years in this job. It is always like that. It is lovely."

What Eriksson cannot manage is the level of expectation. This is a golden generation of English players but the Portuguese hosts are painfully aware that a cluster of talent does not guarantee a trophy. Going out in the quarter-finals would be disappointing but, historically, par. If everyone remains fit, England should aim higher but it would be harsh to turn on Eriksson if England fall in the semi-finals. No England manager has ever gone further.

"We have a chance to win it," Eriksson said. "It is not easy. We have the best teams in Europe here but we are one of those who could win it. We are ready." The first chapter is about to be written. Will it be a horror story or a fantasy?

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