Eriksson exercises the power of motivation

World Cup Qualifier: Coach pursues 'mental tension' as England's unchanged team press for Group Nine supremacy at St James' Park
Click to follow
The Independent Football

St James' Park has been dramatically remodelled since Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United detonated in the Premiership's finishing straight but the ghosts still linger at the Gallowgate End. Tonight they will bear silent witness to the unpredictable nature of sport as England seek to finish the job they began so spectacularly in Munich.

Victory against Albania in the Magpies' nest and England will move above Germany in Group Nine of the European qualifiers for next summer's World Cup. Any other result and Germany, crushed 5-1 on Saturday, will be back in pole position before the final brace of matches on 6 October.

Fortunately for English hopes Sven Goran Eriksson, despite being called a genius, "Godlike" and an example to British business management, shows no sign of wilting under the strain as his predecessor Keegan did. Exuding calm, the England coach said: "There is always the danger, after winning an important game, that you will not play at 100 per cent. We have talked about that. We must not go out thinking we will score lots of goals. We must be disciplined, defend, keep our shape. Maybe then we will score."

He added: "This team could be together for five to seven years but it depends on injuries and how you work. If you don't try to be better every day it is the beginning of the end. Teams don't win 5-1 in Germany. We did. But it is still only small step."

Eriksson has been here before. In his recent book, On Football, written with the sports psychologist Willi Railo, he comments on the need for a team to possess the requisite level of "mental tension". He wrote: "When I coached IFK Gothenburg we succeeded in winning the Uefa Cup in 1982. The week after we met an average Swedish side and lost. Why? Our mental tension was too low."

Seventeen years on, while chasing a Italian championship and European Cup double, Eriksson encountered a similar problem. Lazio won three crucial matches in succession: at Chelsea in Europe and against Roma and Juventus in Italy. On each occasion their motivation was exceptionally high.

Eriksson recalled: "We had no problem finding the mental energy for these matches. We played with a knife at our throat in all three. But the team were not able to keep their concentration for our next match, against Valencia [in the Champions' League semi-final]. It was also very important for us but not as decisive. The players had got it into their heads that the game would be easier and were not as charged up as for the previous matches. We were hammered 5-2.

"As a coach I should have had the courage to change several of our players. Not because they weren't good but because a number of them would not be able to keep up their concentration and create sufficient mental energy."

So will he change this team? "I don't see any [warning] signs," he said. "The players are working very hard and are very focused on the game. They have the right attitude. So maybe I will play the same side; they deserve another chance."

England should, then, field an unchanged starting XI for the first time since the World Cup, a run of 33 matches involving five managers. There was little scope to make a change between the sticks. With Nigel Martyn returning to Leeds after tweaking his knee in training David Seaman is the only goalkeeper in the squad to have played competitively this season.

Richard Wright, who played 44 minutes in the friendly against the Dutch last month, will be on the bench. With Paul Robinson and David James injured, Ian Walker has been called up as cover. Walker, who has yet to play in Leicester's first team since leaving Spurs in the summer, won the last of his three caps in February 1997 and has not featured in the England squad for 17 months.

Albania have played only once in England, losing 5-0 at Wembley in 1989. They have also lost four times in Belfast and once in Cardiff. Increased contact with the outside world has prompted improvements and although they have lost all three away fixtures in the campaign to reach Japan and South Korea next year they were defeated by a single goal on each occasion. Most of their squad play beyond their borders, notably Igli Tare in Serie A, the former Celtic midfielder Rudi Vata, Edvin Murati – the "Albanian Maradona" – and Altin Rraklli, who scored against England in Tirana.

Eriksson, who dismissed speculation linking him with the soon-to-be vacant Manchester United job, added: "Albania are technically good and must be respected. They have nothing to lose. They can be relaxed. We have everything to lose and a lot to win."

England also have by far the superior team. Assuming they follow the basics and remain patient they should win in some comfort.

Comments