Gerrard calls on 'nervous' England to go the distance

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The Independent Football

His views might not go down well with everyone in the England camp, but nobody could accuse Steven Gerrard of complacency. As Sven Goran Eriksson's men prepare to face Poland here tomorrow in their second World Cup qualifying match, Gerrard knows that Saturday's opening draw away to Austria, when England let slip a two-goal lead and were held to a 2-2 draw, was not good enough.

"For 70 minutes we had the game under control," Gerrard said. "We were playing some nice stuff and we were looking dangerous. But for the last 20 minutes it was a completely different England side. We looked all over the place. And I can't put my finger on why that happened. With all due respect to Austria, we might have lost against a better side. It's something we have to work on.

"The result makes Wednesday a much bigger game. If we'd beaten Austria then that would have taken the pressure off a little. But because we've let it slip and have only got one point, Wednesday night has become a massive game for us."

Gerrard is all too aware that Saturday's failure to hang on to a position of strength, let alone build on it, continued a worrying trend for Eriksson's team. England have scored first in all five of their competitive matches this year but in three of them have failed to go on and win, a failing which has cost them victories at the quarter-final stages of the last two major tournaments.

In the World Cup in Shizuoka two years ago, England could not hold on to the lead established by Michael Owen against Brazil, who went on to win 2-1. Fast forward to Euro 2004, when Owen again put England in front in a quarter-final, only for Portugal to play their way back into the game and take a 2-1 lead. Although England scored again, they went out after losing a penalty shoot-out.

When asked if reaching the quarter-finals of major tournaments was about England's level, Gerrard agreed. "Getting beaten by Brazil and knocked out by Portugal shows that we've got to prove we can improve enough to get on to the next level," he said. "I'm definitely confident that we can qualify as winners of this group and get to the World Cup - and have a good World Cup as well. But we've still got a lot of improvement to do. If we're to progress past the quarter-finals in the big competitions we need to learn and correct the things we're doing wrong at the moment.

"We need to learn how to deal with being ahead in games and finishing teams off. If you think games are won with 70 minutes gone that's very dangerous. We have to keep our shape and keep doing the things we were doing before, when we were leading.

"But when you know you have let games slip before, there is the mental side to it as well. Maybe there's a bit of nervousness when we're leading, because we know things like that can happen in games. But we also know we've got the ability to beat these teams in these competitions so we've got to put it right."

Saturday's result was a particular disappointment for Gerrard, who was delighted to be selected in the central midfield position he prefers. By his own standards he did not have the best of summers for England and in the past has struggled to make an impact playing out wide. In the centre against Austria, he was England's most creative player as they dominated the first half. Eriksson substituted him nine minutes from time only because he had been unable to train towards the end of the week because of a groin problem.

While Eriksson has been widely criticised for Saturday's second-half capitulation, Gerrard insists it is the players who should take responsibility. "You can't blame the manager," he said. "If the job's not getting done you have to blame the players. If there was any other England manager in charge he'd have more or less the same players doing the same job. A manager can only do a certain amount."

Gerrard also stressed that David James was not the only player at fault for Austria's equaliser, when Andreas Ivanschitz was allowed to run at the defence before hitting a low drive which crept under the England goalkeeper's body.

"People have been looking at David's mistake, but there were mistakes leading up to the goal," Gerrard said. "The move began from deep in their half."

Gerrard said he did not believe the criticism of Saturday's performance had been unfair, but he hopes to turn it to the team's advantage. "It gives us an extra incentive to support the manager and do better," he said. "I think the stick we've got will help us on Wednesday night."