Lawrence scripts 'Tallest' of stories

The Trinidadian faces a giant task as he prepares to mark Crouch - but he is equal to it

Combating the aerial threat of the 6ft 7in Peter Crouch was always going to prove a tall order for Trinidad & Tobago, but in Dennis Lawrence, who is the same height as England's unlikely cult figure, they may have just the man for the job on Thursday. After all, the Wrexham defender's nickname is "Tallest".

Electrical retailers in the Caribbean islands have reported an unprecedented clamour for plasma-screen television sets. Perhaps it was the prospect of the head-to-head between Lawrence and Crouch - not to mention the Trinidadian's encounter with Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic yesterday - which ensured that the larger sets, ranging from a modest 42in through to a 57in monster costing up to $65,000 (£5,600), sold out first and are now installed in both international airports so that nobody has to miss a kick. How else would such high-rise rivals fit in the picture?

Crouch has spoken of suffering taunts of "lanky" while growing up. "Everyone's life is different, and I enjoyed my childhood," Lawrence said. "I've always been good with people, and they've always been good with me."

Whatever the finals bring for Crouch, he will return to Anfield to prepare for another tilt at the Champions' League. Lawrence will go back to nearby North Wales in readiness for a further 12 months of life in League Two. How did he expect to find the step up from the Racecourse Ground to Nuremberg's Franken Stadium? "You've got to be faster, both in your mind and on your feet," he said. "You've got to make decisions."

For a 30-year-old who has been a full-time professional little over five years, T&T's first-ever appearance in the finals has taken him to places he can be fairly sure he would never his visited with Wrexham, for all the club's proud European pedigree. Last week Lawrence and his colleagues needed a police escort to escape a crowd, largely comprised of screaming girls and more than a few envious boys, after venturing into Rotenburg, the town near their German base.

A guarded character, careful not to be drawn by reporters into comments about Crouch and Co, he provides the journeyman counterweight to the flamboyant style embodied by team-mates such as Dwight Yorke and Russell Latapy. The latter pair fit neatly with the easy-going stereotype that tends to be applied to high-profile West Indians, a perception hardly contradicted by the arrival here of T&T government-sponsored cultural ambassadors such as the calypsonian Black Stalin, the Laventille Rhythm Section and one Len "Boogsie" Sharpe.

Yet whereas Yorke was plucked from Tobago as a teenager after being spotted by Graham Taylor on an Aston Villa tour, and Latapy lists Porto and Rangers on his CV, Lawrence served as a soldier until 2001. He played with the Army club, Defence Force, until the then Wrexham manager, Brian Flynn, gambled £75,000 on the prospect of developing a game-awareness to complement his imposing physique.

Lawrence did not immediately offer convincing evidence that he could ally the two facets. After making his Wrexham debut at centre-forward, he took time to adjust to the intensity of the English League. Rene Simoes, one of the myriad predecessors to the current T&T coach, Leo Beenhakker, discarded him because he felt he was "not talented enough".

Gradually, Lawrence began to settle, in the area as well as in the higher standard of football. Flynn's successor, Denis Smith, who had been renowned as a centre-back who would have thrown himself in front a speeding express train in the cause of Stoke City, hailed his committed approach, saying: "He's a man in the truest sense of the word."

Smith's admiration grew when, with the club's existence threatened by a financial crisis, Lawrence took a pay cut rather than accept more lucrative offers. A transfer would have meant his uprooting his daughter from her school. He calculated that was more important than the extra cash.

His true reward lay ahead. Beenhakker, the veteran Dutchman who revived T&T's moribund World Cup campaign, made Lawrence and Rangers' Marvin Andrews the linchpins of his defence and encouraged him to use his height at set-pieces. In the second leg of a tough, attritional play-off for a place in Germany, away to Bahrain last autumn, "Tallest" put his forehead to a Yorke corner - and the rest is his story.

Not that he was able to join in the immediate celebrations. A Fifa official collared him for the random post-match drug test and it was two hours before a drained Lawrence could muster the required urine sample.

Lawrence would happily endure another such wait during the finals if it followed another footballing tall story come true. "As a kid you always dreamt of things like this," he said. "Now it's here we have to make sure we represent Trinidad & Tobago to the best of our ability."

Coming Soon: Premiership trio to lead the line for Van Basten

TODAY

GROUP C

Serbia & Mont V Holland (2pm)

Serbia's Nemanja Vidic is banned after his sending-off in a qualifier against Bosnia-Herzogovina. Holland's Rafael van der Vaart is back after double ankle surgery. Marco van Basten will play Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben up front.

GROUP D

Mexico V Iran (5pm)

Mexico's keeper Oswald Sanchez flew home following the death of his father but has returned. Iran's key man Mehdi Mahdavikia has recovered from a thigh strain, and striker Ali Karimi is also back after an ankle injury.

Angola V Portugal (8pm)

Portugal's Deco injured his left foot after a clash with team-mate Costinha in training on Friday, but coach Luiz Felipe Scolari may take a chance on the Barcelona player against the former Portuguese colony.

TOMORROW

GROUP F

Australia V Japan (2pm)

Harry Kewell returns after picking up a groin strain in the FA Cup final. Japan's Brazilian-born midfielder Alex Santos may be missing after injuring his leg.

GROUP E

United States V Czech Rep (5pm)

US captain Claudio Reyna is fit after injuring a hamstring but Cory Gibbs has been ruled out of the World Cup with a knee injury. Tomas Rosicky is back for the Czechs after a thigh strain. Talisman Pavel Nedved injured his knee in training and Milan Baros is waiting on a foot injury.

Italy V Ghana (8pm)

Italy will be without Gennaro Gattuso for the first two group games due to a thigh injury, while Gianluca Zambrotta has a similar problem.Alessandro Nesta has been declared fit, and Francesco Totti should also start.

Andrew Tong

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