Eriksson anxious to avoid threat of Argentina until final showdown

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The Independent Online

They have raised the standard in this World Cup and tonight Argentina will provide England with their primary motivation for winning Group B after their manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, admitted that the majestic South Americans must be avoided if he is to chart a course to Berlin on 9 July.

The England manager's famed lack of attention to small detail was in evidence yesterday as he forgot what day it was during a press conference to preview the Group B finale against Sweden. He had clearly been scrutinising the possible permutations on his World Cup wallchart, however.

England could meet Jose Pekerman's Argentina in the quarter-finals of the World Cup if they lose to Sweden tonight and proceed in the tournament as group runners-up. Their opponent in the last 16 will depend on the result of the Group A game between Germany and Ecuador at the Olympiastadion and the outcome of their own contest in Cologne, but while they will know their possible fate before they walk out to face Lars Lagerback's men, it will be Argentina's distant presence that will dominate Eriksson's team talk.

England have paid a heavy price for finishing second in the group stages of two international tournaments under the Swede - the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 - and with the winners of Group B playing on Sunday in Stuttgart rather than Saturday in Munich, he would rather secure first place, take on the host nation and, in all likelihood, the Netherlands in the quarter-finals than confront the team of the competition thus far.

Eriksson explained: "If you start thinking about who is the less difficult one to beat you will never know the answer, but to have that extra day's rest and then probably not meet Argentina in the quarter-finals is a big factor [in winning the group]. We don't want to meet Argentina early in the tournament. For the moment they are in the best form. I am not worried about meeting them - we have played them twice since I came to this job and they both went OK - but if you played Argentina you know you would be meeting one of the best teams in the world and a team that can win the World Cup easily, although winning a World Cup is never easy."

Neither is beating Sweden. England have not defeated Eriksson's compatriots in 11 attempts, a sequence stretching back to 1968, and while a draw will be enough to secure first place he is determined to see a significant improvement on the team's insipid opening displays. "Thirty-eight years is a long time," he said. "It is important we play better than in the last two games, take one step more, and win the group. It is the best way to do it. It doesn't matter what happens in the Germany-Ecuador game, if we win the group we will have one day's extra rest and that will be very important in the knock-out stages."

Eriksson will replace the booked Steven Gerrard with Owen Hargreaves as he spares the Liverpool captain for the knock-out round, and he will hand Michael Owen the chance to justify his recent criticism of the team's long ball approach by starting him alongside Rooney.

"Right or not right?" said Eriksson of Owen's comments. "I have heard that for 30 years from strikers who do not score." The England manager added: "I agree that with Peter Crouch on the pitch we played too many long balls, I agree with him on that. The statistics show it was 50 per cent long balls and 50 per cent through midfield. [Against Sweden] I suppose there will be more shorter balls. I hope it [the system] will mean more passes for Michael Owen."

Gary Neville will be absent for the second successive game with a calf problem and is still doubtful for the weekend. "He will have a scan on Wednesday that will decide if he can start running. I hope he will be fit for the second round but I am not sure," revealed Eriksson.

Tonight's game will mark Rio Ferdinand's 50th appearance for his country, a milestone the England manager believes has only been made possible by the Manchester United defender's reaction to being dropped to the bench against Austria following the infamous defeat by Northern Ireland last September.

"He has woken up," Eriksson said. "He has everything as a central defender, he is the most elegant central defender you can find. He has received only one yellow card in 49 games and that is incredible for a defender. When I put him on the bench I think he deserved that. When Rio doesn't play very well it can only mean that he's injured or he's not concentrating. When he's not injured and he is concentrating he should always be one of the best players on the pitch."

Where do we go from here? Why winning Group B could be vital

England are currently leaders of Group B, and need only a draw tonight to win the group. That would make their second-round game against the runners-up of Group A on Sunday 25th June in Stuttgart at 4pm. Germany are currently runners-up in Group A and must beat Ecuador to win that group.

If England come second in Group B they will have a day's less preparation, playing the winners of Group A (Ecuador or Germany) on Saturday 24th June in Munich at 4pm. More importantly, though, as runners-up they will have to play the winners of Group C in the quarter-finals. This is likely to be Argentina (assuming they beat the runners-up of Group D in their second-round encounter).

Teams finishing level on points will be ranked on: 1 Goal difference; 2 Total goals scored; 3 Most points won in matches between teams finishing level; 4 Goal difference from games between teams finishing level; 5 Total goals scored in those three games; 6 Draw of lots.

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