Islanders look to Yorke to exploit Swedes' frailties

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In a tournament sprinkled with stellar talents from Juventus, Milan, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Trinidad & Tobago stick out like a sore thumb for a squad drawn from clubs as disparate as Port Vale, Sydney FC, Los Angeles Galaxy and Falkirk. But on their World Cup debut against Sweden in Dortmund today, they may face a goalkeeper whose pedigree also combines the modest and the exotic.

Rami Shabaan, whose brief stint at Arsenal was followed by unfulfilling loan spells at West Ham and Brighton, is vying with John Alvbage for the vacancy created by the absence of Andreas Isaksson. The latter was concussed by a ferocious shot from his Rennes colleague Kim Kallstrom in training this week, which ensured that one of his internationally inexperienced deputies will play against T&T. Neither had played for his country before the start of the year.

Shabaan, Stockholm-born of Finnish and Egyptian parents, is now playing with Fredrikstad in Sweden after trial spells at Dundee United and Sheffield United last year failed to secure a hoped-for return to Britain. A close friend of Freddie Ljungberg, whom he credits with his place in Lars Lagerback's squad as well as with support in the aftermath of a messy divorce, the 30-year-old played just three Premiership matches while at Highbury, although he is still arguably less of a big-game rookie than Alvbage, 23.

On a superficial level, the game between two sides from England's group appears a mismatch. Sweden are competing in their 11th World Cup and have a final and two semi-final appearances to their name, along with a reputation for Scandinavian solidity.

T&T are, if Dwight Yorke will pardon the expression, virgins in this tournament. The smallest country ever to reach the finals, they have a population of just 1.3 million (a mere 50,000 of them on Yorke's home island of Tobago), while they lost 5-0 at home in the nations' only previous encounter, in 1983.

Nor do the Soca Warriors come into the game in the kind of form that suggests they could upset opponents whose organised, unflappable style has taken them to four successive world and European finals tournaments. During a tortuous qualifying campaign, T&T beat only Mexico of the three other North and Central American sides that made it to Germany, earning a top-four finish largely by amassing points against the makeweights of St Kitts & Nevis, Panama and St Vincent & Grenadines.

More recently, after losing all three warm-up internationals - to a severely understrength Wales team, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, and conceding eight goals while scoring only twice in the process - T&T scraped past a German third-tier team, St Pauli, 2-1 on Monday.

The combination of Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic should carry too much craft and clout for Marvin Andrews and Dennis Lawrence, of Rangers and Wrexham respectively.

Larsson, 34 and looking to finish his career back in Sweden, played in his first World Cup 12 years ago, but showed his potential to be a force in this competition last month, coming off the bench in his farewell game for Barcelona to help turn the Champions' League final against Arsenal.

Many Scots have travelled to support T&T, and not only in the hope of seeing them humble England. Andrews, Russell Latapy, Kelvin Jack, Colin Samuel and the splendidly named Jason Scotland - signed up as a columnist by a Glasgow Sunday newspaper so that they could run the nostalgic logo "Scotland at the World Cup" - all play in Scotland. Such was Larsson's popularity at Celtic, however, that there will be a smattering of hooped shirts alongside the kilts.

Intriguingly for Messrs Owen, Crouch and possibly Rooney, there have been rumblings in the Swedish press that Lagerback's centre-backs, Olof Mellberg and Teddy Lucic, are beginning to show their age. T&T's Stern John, in his Birmingham City days, has had the better of Aston Villa's Mellberg, and with 65 goals from less than 100 caps he boasts a record for his country that allows some scope for optimism.

T&T also possess a great asset in the knowledge and wisdom of their coach Leo Beenhakker, 63, whose experience includes stints with Mexico and his native Netherlands as well as Ajax and Real Madrid. In tandem with Yorke, whom he lured out of international retirement and installed in a new midfield role alongside the Stafford-born Chris Birchall, he performed one minor miracle by securinga place in Germany.

The trick now is to conjure another. Even a draw against Sweden, who are England's supposed "bogey" team, would give Sven Goran Eriksson food for thought.

* Marvin Andrews has been ruled out of today's game with a recurrence of a knee injury.

Comments