With the Olympics looming Athens is scattered with the evidence of a city frantically upgrading itself to the modern age. Sven Goran Eriksson, invited on to the hotel roof for the obligatory picture with the Acropolis, must have looked at the builders' cranes spoiling the skyline and sympathised.
So far his equally urgent modernisation of the England team has progressed far better than anyone dared anticipate. Four matches have produced four wins and some increasing stylish football. New players, like Ashley Cole, have been discovered, old ones, like Andy Cole, rejuvenated. The only blemish on the horizon is Germany's continuing presence at the top of Group Nine.
Tonight this promising scenario faces its most testing examination. Greece may be more famous for ruined monuments than ruining reputations but Eriksson fears they will not be such easy opponents as many anticipate. The Greeks will certainly not lack incentive. Victory would lift them into second place in Group Nine and raise hopes of a second World Cup finals appearance in three tournaments. They ought, however, to lack the basic quality required to defeat an England side brimming more justified confidence than has always been the case.
With Steven Gerrard passed fit England are expected to start with 10 of the XI who dissected Mexico in Derby 12 days ago. Steve McManaman is the anticipated change with Emile Heskey, who appears one of the few players here whose season has gone on too long, dropping out. McManaman, like Paul Scholes, would be suspended from the potentially decisive tie against Germany in September should he be booked tonight but Eriksson cautioned: "The most important thing is to win tomorrow, we must concentrate on that first. We should not be talking about Germany now.
"This is the most difficult match since I became England manager. Spain [Eriksson's first opponents] are a very good team but that was a friendly. In my experiences it is very difficult to play in Greece. Greek players are very good at home. They have the chance to go second and will have been eating raw meat to prepare."
That was an unusually evocative turn of speech from Eriksson who expects his players to prepare not with steak tartare but by consuming large quantities of water and isotonic sports drinks. Though the late evening kick-off (9.45pm local time) means the heat will have gone out of the day it could still be a draining evening.
To avoid being run to a standstill England will need to get their passing right. Players like Michael Owen may thrive on defence-splitting eye-of-the-needle passes but, by definition, these are risky and too often result in conceding possession. To this end this season's European experience could be crucial. All the anticipated starting XI played with clubs who reached the last eight in either the Champions' League or Uefa Cup and Eriksson added: "It is a big advantage to me because it is not enough just to play games with the national team. Many of the players met Greek teams in competition which also helps."
Both Liverpool and Manchester United played in Greece this season, gaining draws with Olympiakos and Panathinaikos respectively. England, to keep the pressure on a German team which plays in Albania tonight, will need to do even better. The antecedents are promising. England have won five and drawn one of their six previous meetings with Greece, conceding one goal. The most relevant is the 1982 qualifier when Sammy Lee, now one of Eriksson's assistants, scored on his debut as England cruised to an 3-0 victory. However, the heavy defeat suffered by the Under-21s last night, in which the Greeks showed clever close control, will have reminded England nothing can be taken for granted.
Eriksson expects Greece to retain their 3-5-2 system and, despite the home team's concern over being caught square by the speed of Owen, he does not believe they will defend deep. Nor, since they need to win, does he expect them to sit back and rely on counter-attacks. But, he added: "You never know what will happen with the other side, it is like chess."
Victory would complete an extremely successful first six months as England coach for Eriksson but he is aware that it is only a beginning. "I think we have done well," he said. "We have played good football, got good results. But success for England should be much, much more.
"For the moment I think I am accepted, I hope so. But in football things change quickly. I was at Benfica for five years. For the first four I won championships and reached a European final. Then I was second in the league and reached the quarter-finals in Europe. I was out. That is football and you must know that. You are only accepted as long as you are doing well."Reuse content