Eriksson must seize his chance to show methods in tactical madness
Saturday 01 July 2006
Luiz Felipe Scolari prays every day to the Virgin of Caravaggio - he has based his Portugal team in Marienfeld, a centre for the Catholic church in Germany - and has a daily conversation with Father Pedro, his spiritual mentor in Brazil. Today, the manager of Portugal will certainly believe he has the big man on his side. England will just have to put their faith in Sven Goran Eriksson.
Eriksson's team trained under the closed roof of the AufSchalke Arena yesterday in a cathedral-like hush. Today will be the moment Eriksson finally cracks the mystery of beating the manager who has eliminated England from their last two major tournaments or, in defeat, Scolari will assume the status of English football's most terrifying bogeyman. Without two of his best players in Gelsenkirchen today the man from Porto Alegre only seems more dangerous.
Eriksson did not look like a man approaching his defining day, but then this is a manager who is unflinching on the most dramatic of occasions. As England's players passed, ran and shot in the echoing emptiness of the arena yesterday, Eriksson stood blank-faced with his arms folded, reminding us all that, come the heat and excitement of today, the histrionics and the passion will be provided by his opposite number. "I don't stand there screaming at the players at half-time," Eriksson said. "I don't believe they will play better football."
If yesterday does turn out to be his last ever press conference, then at least Eriksson made it one to remember - politely following a dangerous line of questioning to its embarrassing, bizarre conclusion. In reference to Gareth Southgate's criticism of his team-talk at half-time of the 2002 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Scolari's Brazil - "we needed Winston Churchill but we got Iain Duncan Smith" - he was asked which statesman he would emulate this time around.
Had it come to this, you could not help thinking, that, at a World Cup in Germany, we were trying to invoke the memories of England's wartime leader to elicit one spark of passion and inspiration from the manager of the national team? Unfortunately that was exactly what it had come to and Eriksson's response was one of those that will be remembered as long as his reign as manager is discussed "What's the difference between Winston Churchill and Iain Duncan Smith?" he said. "You'll have to tell me."
It was delivered with the usual nervous laugh and well-intentioned humour but it was the kind of gaffe that reminded you of all the absurdities of the Eriksson years. He went on to name Bill Clinton as one of the leaders he also admired and when the similarities between the two men's private lives are considered it was best for all concerned that Eriksson did not elaborate.
But overall you were left thinking what a strange journey it has been for England under Eriksson, how little the English know about the man who holds all their hopes and dreams - and, more to the point, how little he knows about them.
There is little point hoping that, after five and a half years of gentle persuasion, Eriksson would deliver the speech of a lifetime to see his team through. Unlike Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson, he had clearly given not a moment's thought to what he might say on the eve of this match. "I will be as I always am," he said. "I will not read Winston Churchill tonight or try to be like him."
You would settle for him just reacquainting himself with the scouting report on Portugal. This time Eriksson was not pushed on his usually threadbare knowledge of the opposition. Instead he made the assurance that Frank Lampard would be fit to play despite twisting his ankle in training on Thursday and certainly the midfielder looked to be running freely in training - but otherwise England's formation will change once again.
With Michael Carrick expected to be left out as Gary Neville comes back in at right-back, Owen Hargreaves switches to the holding midfield role. It is a typical Eriksson move, the old hierarchy of the best players, as he sees them, fitted into whatever formation suits them best. But make no mistake, this will be a fearsome tactical battle and the England manager must be sure he has called it right.
Without his playmaker Deco and the defensive midfielder Costinha, Scolari has the option of playing Luis Figo in the role behind his lone striker Pauleta. He still has the wingers Simao Sabrosa and Cristiano Ronaldo at his disposal. He could bring in Petit or Tiago in midfield - this is a weakened Portugal team but it is also one that is rich in options for their inventive manager.
"I respect him, I don't admire him" was Eriksson's assessment of Scolari. He also said that he was not for playing mind games - "we are above all that" - although Scolari might not agree in private. He would not confirm Ronaldo's fitness despite the Manchester United winger missing training yesterday.
The AufSchalke Arena at Gelsenkirchen is where seven of the current Portugal squad won the Champions' League final with Mourinho's Porto team two years' ago, but there are more compelling statistics than that omen to make them a formidable force today. Portugal have won their last eight consecutive matches and Scolari is unbeaten in 11 straight World Cup games when you include the seven matches he won with Brazil four years ago.
When he comes under pressure to define why he feels England will win crucial games, Eriksson struggles to articulate his belief and confidence in his side. "I don't know if I am a better manager," he said, "but I have a better team." Earlier he had admitted: "I'm not completely happy [with the performances] but I am completely happy with results and I think we will play better."
There is no doubt that today, many English fans will find more in common with the wild-eyed gesturing and exhortations of Scolari than the man in the FA blazer whose job he turned down in April.
If there is an Eriksson way, a method in all this vagueness and promises - maybe a Churchillian conviction - then it will have to present itself today.
Struggles with class of Port: How England have fared v Portugal in previous games at finals
* 24 JUNE 2004 European Championship Quarter-final (Lisbon)
Portugal 2-2 England
Rui Costa Lampard
Portugal won 6-5 on penalties
England: James, G Neville, Terry, Campbell, A Cole, Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard (Hargreaves 81), Scholes (P Neville 57), Owen, Rooney (Vassell 27).
It started so well, Michael Owen (right) scoring after three minutes. However, Wayne Rooney's metatarsal gave way, soon followed by England's passing game. Sol Campbell had a 'winning' goal disallowed in extra-time. England's first spot-kick was missed by David Beckham, the last was saved from Darius Vassell.
* 12 JUNE 2000 European Championship Group A (Eindhoven)
Portugal 3-2 England
Figo, Pinto, Scholes
Nuno Gomes McManaman
England: Seaman, G Neville, Adams (Keown 82), Campbell, P Neville, Beckham, Scholes, Ince, McManaman (Wise 58), Shearer, Owen (Heskey 46).
A game that epitomised the Kevin Keegan era - an uncomfortable alliance of talent and tactical ineptitude - plus the side's discomfort when defending a lead. Two goals in 20 minutes from Scholes and McManaman (above) and England looked unbeatable. Within two minutes, however, Luis Figo scored a screamer. Portugal dominated the rest of the match.
* 3 JUNE 1986 World Cup Group F (Monterrey, Mexico)
England 0-1 Portugal
England: Shilton, Stevens, Sansom, Butcher, Fenwick, Hoddle, Robson (Hodge, 80), Wilkins, Hateley, Lineker, Waddle (Beardsley, 80).
England went into the game on an 11-game unbeaten run but, in the Mexican heat, they were simply awful. Despite their rare forays upfield, Portugal scored when Carlos Manuel was left unmarked at the back post from a Diamantino cross. England's tactic of using the 'big man up front' (Mark Hateley, above) appeared tired and predictable.
* 26 JULY 1966 World Cup
England 2-1 Portugal
Charlton (2) Eusebio (pen)
England: Banks, Cohen, Wilson, Stiles, J Charlton, Moore, Ball, Hurst, R Charlton, Hunt, Peters.
Two goals by Bobby Charlton (pictured) were the highlight but the game was won by the combative midfielder Nobby Stiles and the England defence, who largely nullified the dangerous Eusebio. The players that had earlier kicked Pele out the tournament, Vicente and Morais, were themselves left out of this match. A good-natured game ensued.
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