Gerrard holds the pass-go card

Communication the key as middle England fight off French flair
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England's goalkeeper David James, emerging in the television series Football Diaries as one of the profession's more interesting personalities, considers that the three most important factors governing success at a major international tournament are: 1) having your best squad; 2) giving your best performances; and 3) enjoying "a bit of luck".

England's goalkeeper David James, emerging in the television series Football Diaries as one of the profession's more interesting personalities, considers that the three most important factors governing success at a major international tournament are: 1) having your best squad; 2) giving your best performances; and 3) enjoying "a bit of luck".

After reaching this point minus Rio Ferdinand and his three replacements but with less damage suffered than at the World Cup two years ago, England must now aim for that second target while praying for the third. And in a tournament in which the golden goal has been quietly abolished, increasing the likelihood of penalty shoot-outs, do not underestimate the importance of Senhora Luck.

The first moment of truth since last October's decisive qualifying match in Turkey is also dawning for Sven Goran Eriksson, the excessively remunerated head coach. Having survived furtive visits behind diaph-anous curtains to the home of Premiership owners with his reputation and popularity just about intact, he is now staking both on his own insistence on being judged only in competitive games. The Swede's record on that score (played 19, won 13, drawn 5, lost one) is impressive, but by the luck of the draw, good or bad, is about to be tested by the strongest opposition possible this evening.

Good, because knowing exactly what England are up against (there are likely to be as many as 18 players in tonight's game with Premiership experience) ought to have deflated the excessive levels of expectation that attend the country's appearances at these tournaments. Bad, because defeat in the opening game after all the hype can have a debilitating effect. As David Beckham put it yesterday: "Losing the opening game wouldn't be good because then we'd have to go and beat the other two in the group."

It can be argued that conceding all three points would be far from fatal, since finishing first or second in the group is merely the difference between playing Portugal or Spain in an equally demanding quarter-final tie.

The blow would be mental, possibly affecting the confidence of the younger players and making it more difficult to recover in the manner of more experienced squads like Bobby Robson's at the 1990 World Cup or Terry Venables' in 1996, both of whom reached semi-finals after a stuttering start.

How best to avoid it? Less than a month ago, Eriksson's stated strategy was to field a compact midfield in a diamond shape, crowding the French and blocking off the space in front of the back four where Zinedine Zidane likes to create confusion and damage. Nicky Butt, it was strongly implied, would be the key figure as the man who "must hold 100 per cent and go forward very seldom". Much has changed in a short space of time. Chelsea's Frank Lampard, "knocking very hard on the door" when the squad was announced on 17 May, has forced it open, and now it is Butt, Eriksson confirmed yesterday, who is "knocking and wants to come in". He is on the outside looking in because Beckham, Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes are "the best four midfielders you can find, so they should play together".

Fitting those four into the existing diamond system did not work against Japan, because, as Alan Hansen put it bluntly on television, "Frank can't play that [holding] position. You're not playing to your strengths". So the supposedly key role was abolished and a traditional midfield quartet preferred by the players concerned was introduced to triumphant effect against the sons (and -ssons) of Iceland, who froze as comprehensively as the supermarket named after them. Even then England could not manage a first clean sheet in five games since Istanbul - an alarming contrast to the French record of not conceding a goal all season.

Eriksson insists of his midfield options: "It's never been a problem. I told all four of them on the first day in Sardinia [last week] that I knew they prefer to play in the centre, but if you can find a system with four central midfielders tell me, as I don't have it. The good thing is all four can play left, right and centre and they can switch easily."

Discipline is essential in doing that, above all for the two central players in not going forward at the same time and for Scholes on the left in offering protection to the easily exposed Ashley Cole. If Scholes is genuinely offended by the "boasting" of Arsenal's French players, he can do his bit by helping Cole keep his Highbury mate Robert Pires quiet.

After a week's work on the new/old formation, Gerrard certainly recognises the danger. "Frank Lampard's a great player and we did hit it off against Iceland," he said, "but with all due respect to Iceland they're not as good as the French and other teams in this tournament. But it's started really well and hopefully that relationship will get better.

"It's all about communication. Sven has told us he wouldn't like both of us to go forward, but we both need to defend and we need to communicate to make sure that one of us is getting into the box. There's no better person to get into the box than Frank. So maybe I'll have to be a bit more disciplined."

No maybe about it. Discipline will be vital, and if England can keep theirs, James establishing early authority in goal (he claims never to have been beaten by Thierry Henry in a one-on-one), Sol Campbell talking John Terry's replacement through the game and Gerrard sitting tight, renewed self-belief will kick in. Then some questions might be posed at the other end of the pitch. Can Michael Owen, who was off the pace last week, and his apprentice Wayne Rooney, who picked it up again, rise to the big occasion, as they usually do? How often should Gary Neville or Cole advance ahead of Zidane and Pires, risking an Arsenal-style counterattack? Will Lampard, stealing forward through the middle, have any new tricks to outwit his clubmate Claude Makelele?

If the potentially critical tactical issue is England's success in subduing Zidane and Henry, the key psychological factor may be France's greater desire to win the game, as opposed to not losing it. Holders and favourites they may be, but with much to prove to the world after their dismal World Cup failure in South Korea two years ago. Their mentality, Beckham suggested, demands a victory, whereas England's, he virtually admitted, would on this occasion gratefully accept a draw. One-one, and all those flags of St George, not to mention St David, will flutter proudly come 9.30pm tonight.

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