Many things are hard to interpret for an Englishman in Japan, but none so difficult to read as his national football team. Excruciating one day, intoxicating the next, England are harder to predict than the path of a ball in pachinko, the local version of pinball.
Sven Goran Eriksson's next task, having overseen yesterday's remarkable 1-0 victory here over Argentina, England's most impressive result in a World Cup finals since 1966, is to eradicate this inconsistency. Otherwise the gains made under the roof of the Sapporo Dome could be frittered away in the heat of Osaka on Wednesday. England are due to play Nigeria in mid-afternoon and the provisional forecast suggests that the Nagai Stadium will be humid and hot. England will need to maintain the compact shape they held in the air-conditioned Dome if they are to ensure the point required to seal a place in the second round.
This may depend as much on what Eriksson says off the training pitch as on it. Having crumbled under the burden of expectation in their opening game against Sweden, England went into yesterday's tie against Argentina under pressure to produce a result but without being favourites. Now, since they need "only" draw against Nigeria, expectation will weigh again on his young team.
Eriksson will hope that the character they displayed against Argentina, and the result, will provide his players with the necessary mental strength and confidence. "The players showed again they are good footballers," he said after David Beckham's penalty had left Argentina, not England, fearing early elimination. "I am proud of all of them. They did a marvellous job. I'm not surprised. When we are focused we can do wonderful things. We passed well for 70 minutes and when we tired we defended with big hearts."
It was Argentina's first defeat since losing to Brazil in July 2000 and their first to England in 22 years. It was also the first time in 36 years and eight attempts that England had defeated, at this level, one of the major four teams, Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina.
"It is a fair result and an important one. Now we must forget about this and prepare for Nigeria," Eriksson added. He may be without Owen Hargreaves, who was forced off yesterday with a badly bruised calf and will have a scan today. England's other injury concern is Joe Cole, who was not among the substitutes. He had tweaked a groin in training.
On the credit side Beckham, Nicky Butt and Kieron Dyer, none of whom are match-fit (though you would not have believed it from Butt's performance), will be that much sharper. Eriksson said: "I think we can play better than this if we stay in the tournament. We started it with three or four players injured and some are still not match-fit."
The temptation is to keep an unchanged side, although the team which won this match was not the one Eriksson chose. The experiment of playing Paul Scholes wide left lasted only 18 minutes before Hargreaves' exit forced a reshuffle. While Hargreaves has impressed, he is unlikely to replace Butt or Scholes from their central roles after yesterday's performance. He could return on the left, but Trevor Sinclair did well there. More probably, Dyer will be given a first World Cup start.
Eriksson must also decide who to partner Michael Owen in attack. Teddy Sheringham looked sharp when he came on, but Eriksson is expected to retain Heskey, despite his being one of the quieter performances.
An Argentine win would have seen them join Spain, 3-1 victors over Paraguay yesterday, as the first second-round qualifiers. Instead, they face Sweden in Miyagi on Wednesday knowing a point for England will put them out unless they fail to win.
Diego Simeone, who finished the match as Argentina's captain after Juan Sebastian Veron was taken off, said: "We tried to find a way down the right, the left, the middle, and we couldn't do it. We had the ball for 80 per cent of the time but we lost because of one move by Michael Owen. In a game like this the team that makes the least mistakes wins. I can't be sure it was a penalty because he is so fast. But it is our fault anyway for not playing better."
Remarkably, the two pre-tournament favourites could both go out after the first round as France are also struggling to qualify. Italy and Brazil are now the bookmakers' favourites.
England, whose odds have shrunk to 7-1, will return to their secluded base on the island of Awaji today, with the squad having a warm-down this afternoon. Eriksson will then begin planning for Nigeria. The Africans yesterday became the second team, after Saudi Arabia, to go out after losing 2-1 to Sweden. "I know they have nothing to play for but that makes it more difficult," said Eriksson. "We must now forget what we did today."
He might be able to, but few of England's supporters will.Reuse content