Now or never for golden generation, says Neville

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It was the question that inadvertently suggested that he and Zinedine Zidane were comparable that made Gary Neville double-take yesterday. "You said me and Zidane?" he asked with incredulity. "Go on," he added with disbelief, "keep going."

Neville has made it his life's work to tell it like it is, and he plainly suffers no nonsense. As England approach a defining moment in their World Cup journey, it took the arch-pragmatist among them to lay out, very simply, where they stand four games into this tournament.

The Neville treatise could be described in parts as faintly Churchillian, a stirring reminder that England's fate rests in their own hands and this time, as he said himself, there are "no excuses".

He is the most interesting character in Sven Goran Eriksson's squad and while he has been perceived as a moaner and an unnecessary agitator in the past, Neville is principally a realist. It may be the abuse that he and his brother Phil have had to endure over the years, it might be all that time spent with Roy Keane but he neither asked nor gave any quarter yesterday. "We know we have good players," he said. "Those players, come Saturday, have to deliver."

It barely needs recording that the criticism England have endured for their performances over the last four games, the most recent three of which Neville has missed with a calf injury, was not up for discussion. "I think when you have got a World Cup quarter-final on Saturday and you are playing against Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo," he said, "the last thing you talk about is what you people are writing."

The art of dominating the agenda, as perfected by his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson, is a skill Neville has also acquired. He would not discuss what had passed, only the nature of the challenge that lay ahead, how against Portugal, England would have to respond to problems rather than allow them "to slowly eat away at us". That this had been "the smoothest ride" his team-mates could have hoped for to the quarter-finals.

"If we fail you as a country on Saturday," Neville said, "then we have to hold our hands up and say: 'We haven't delivered, the talk of us actually being potential world champions was rubbish.'

"This is it for us. In four years' time we are in South Africa, it could be 45 degrees, we might not qualify, we could get a group of death. We have had a pretty decent track to this quarter-final and now we have got to beat Portugal to get to the World Cup semi-final. Is this England team capable of doing that? Can we do it? I believe the answer is 'yes'."

The calf injury that has forced Neville to watch from the bench is now better, he said, although he is not quite at the level of match fitness he would like to be for such an important game. While expecting him to criticise England's performances in his absence is as realistic as asking for Wembley Stadium to be ready by the time the team arrive home, he did have one important theory on the nature of the games so far.

Up until tomorrow's quarter-final, Neville said that England's matches had been more like friendlies.

England have come up against teams who, he said, have been content with "stifling our play" while, against Portugal, England can expect a "flair team".

"It almost feels like we have played three or four friendly matches in a way, it doesn't feel like a World Cup," Neville said. "In Euro 2004, there was the France game. In Euro '96 there was the Scotland and Netherlands games. In '98 we had Argentina.

"I think to get to this stage without playing that massive match which makes you believe you are actually in it has been good for us in one way. Germany are in the same position. They are coming up against a different level of opposition in the quarter-final."

Neville, 31, said this would be, in all likelihood, his last World Cup finals and, while it is hard to disagree, there is no other English right-back at the moment who could even launch a serious challenge to his status. He missed the last World Cup through injury and for Neville there is a clear-eyed immediacy about the situation, a sense that this is now or never for this generation of players.

"We won't be coming to you on Saturday night saying: 'Well, you know, 2008 could be our time'," Neville said. "We have said all along that 2004, 2006 will be our time. In 2008 I still think we will have a great squad. I still think we will have a great chance of winning the European Championship. But this now is our best opportunity.

"This team is capable of beating anybody and we have shown it on our day that we can. So the time is for us to deliver and there is great expectation, but expectation that I think is correct and right - I believe we have actually created it. We have not shied away from it."

Listening to him, it made you wonder if he lays out the reality in such brutal terms to the younger players in the England squad. Certainly, Neville's approach is gloriously simple. He was asked whether he was trying to dispel the gloomy mood that England's performances had attracted thus far. "Why shouldn't we be positive?" he said. "We have got a World Cup quarter-final. It is certainly the last chance I am ever going to get to play in one and I am not going into it thinking: 'Oh my God, it's a World Cup quarter-final' in a negative way."

Despite the six Premiership titles, the European Cup and the three FA Cups, this one would top the lot in Neville's career. How, he was asked, does he deal with the pressure of these games?

"I tell myself it's an opportunity to do something really great but it's only a game of football and, come what may on Sunday, we will still be doing the normal things that make our life tick." And despite all he had said before, that was the most sensible point of all.