James Lawton: Croatia's dark arts aimed at Rooney

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The Independent Football

Gary Neville and David Beckham will be in charge of the protective screen which England know they have to throw around Wayne Rooney in the face of the expected provocations of Croatia here in the Estadio da Luz tonight. This really should be more reassuring than it is. Neville, after all, is by far the most celebrated barrack room lawyer in English football. Beckham is the captain who prides himself on an inspiring and calming touch, and that was so even in the days when he was wearing an Alice band.

So why the knot apprehension in the stomach on the way to the beautiful stadium where England need to brace themselves for the possibility of all kinds of ugliness while achieving nothing less than the draw which will avoid a humiliating early return from these European Championship finals?

There are several reasons, and not least because the team is still arguing about how it should play, but maybe the most compelling is because Croatia long ago proved that in the matter of dirty tricks they are quite possibly without peers, so good that the winding up of the brilliant but still emotionally brittle Rooney would appear to be not so much a dark challenge as a casually executed chore.

The deepest concern is that the new wunderkind of the world game was drawn perilously to the brink of dismissal against the Swiss with the gratuitous foul on goalkeeper Jorg Stiel, which earned him his first yellow card in England's colours.

Against the historically neutral Swiss, Rooney's emotions ran dangerously high. Against the Croats, who have been fighting wars more or less non-stop since the middle ages, the level of bellicosity could rise dramatically. Like the football of the old Yugoslavia, the Croatian game is split straight down the middle. One half is capable of brilliance. The other can be mean to the point of assassination. Plainly, the potentially devastating Rooney will be the leading target.

It was six years ago in the Stade de France when those of us who thought we had seen the most despicable act of cheating in Diego Maradona's hand of God in Mexico City in 1986 were required to think again. It was the sight of Croatia's Slaven Bilic falling as though he had been hit by an axe when Laurent Blanc, the great hero of France, made a gesture of pushing him away. Blanc was sent off and missed the World Cup final.

Six years on, the obscenity of that moment when Bilic so shamelessly squirmed his way to inflicting the worst day in the football life of a great player - and a great man - is re-made as vividly as ever by the cynical words of Croatia's current coach, the ageing Otto Baric. The way to combat Rooney, suggested the old man, was with yellow and red cards. There it was, out on the record, a call for the ultimate corruption of what these days passes for the spirit of the game.

England are taking the threat seriously - and offering a prayer of thanks that the man in charge is not some card-waving, Pavlovian-reflexed official from a backwater of middle Europe, but the infinitely sophisticated Italian Pierluigi Collina.

England's assistant coach Steve McClaren made no attempt to disguise his pleasure that "Collina will be there". He added: "One thing Sven [Eriksson, the England manager] addressed before both the French and Swiss games was the need to keep cool heads and discipline - and he's going to make that point again. You can't take away what Rooney is but I do think it helps that we have some good senior players like Gary Neville and Beckham who in some controversial incidents in the Swiss game were going over to him [Rooney] and calming him down, diffusing the situation, affecting the referee. I think other players can help Wayne and that's part of the strength we have got in our camp. I think everybody looks out for everybody else within any team structure, especially with Wayne, one so young and who, as it is being said, could well be targeted."

Inevitably, Rooney's dramatic effect on the 3-0 win over Switzerland has placed him on the top of most everybody's agenda, but the truth is that England have some other highly pressing issues going in against a Croatia who could so easily have beaten France in the last moments of their 2-2 draw with the reigning champions. Will banker players Michael Owen and Paul Scholes finally start to show the kind of bite and drive which have long been among England's most potent assets? Are the team, and especially Beckham, truly fit... how, for example, would they fare in a game played at the breathtaking pace of the Czech Republic's 3-2 win over the Netherlands in the best game of the tournament so far? The Czechs, whose performance installed them as the new favourites in the minds of those growing weary while waiting to see an effort of genuine stature, passed with a fluency going forward which, for all the overt confidence of Eriksson and McClaren, could only have triggered pangs of envy in the England camp.

McClaren did admit his concern over the tendency of England, both against France and Switzerland, to give the ball away, saying: "There is no doubt we have to improve in this area, but I do think you will see this against Croatia. The camp is magnificently focused in its determination to progress a lot further in this tournament." He also made a small joke of suggestions that player-power has risen to the point of control. "We haven't discussed the team yet, but you know we do discuss things..."

Everybody laughed but the suspicion has to be that the mirth will be muted right up to the final whistle tonight. Croatia, hard and ruthless enough in themselves, are also likely to receive support of the kind that was supposed to have been banished from international football some time ago. In the game against France, whole blocks of Croat fans booed the black French players, and with so much at stake, they are unlikely be any more uplifted when Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole get on the ball.

The truth is that at the Estadio da Luz - stadium of light - England must be prepared to encounter more than a little darkness. With the vibrant Rooney, and Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Owen and Scholes all anxious to make a serious impact, there is no doubt they have enough talent for the task. The last, and perhaps most vital question, is whether they have the nerve. The suspicion here is that they do - at least enough for a two-goal winning margin.