Preparation can be key to final rehearsal

Craig Brown looks ahead to England's opening game against France and, below, analyses the issues which could decide the outcome. The former Scotland manager will be writing for The Independent throughout Euro 2004
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Though Portugal's match against Greece today officially starts the European Championship, everyone here is looking on tomorrow's game between England and France as the one that will truly launch this tournament. Will English hearts be fluttering like the flags which proliferate in my new country of residence? Looking at the players on view, and what is at stake, I am convinced that this will be one of the best European Championship games of all time. Indeed, it could be a rehearsal for the 2004 final.

Though Portugal's match against Greece today officially starts the European Championship, everyone here is looking on tomorrow's game between England and France as the one that will truly launch this tournament. Will English hearts be fluttering like the flags which proliferate in my new country of residence? Looking at the players on view, and what is at stake, I am convinced that this will be one of the best European Championship games of all time. Indeed, it could be a rehearsal for the 2004 final.

Eight years ago, almost to the day, I sat in a hotel room in Stratford with the entire Scotland squad, watching the opening game of Euro '96, England against Switzerland. The game was a major disappointment, a 1-1 draw. Indeed, it is traditional for the opening game in a major tournament to fail to live up to expectations and the massive pre-match hype. The fact that two years later, when I was in charge of Scotland in the opening World Cup match in Paris, this game was rated as one of the best-ever opening matches is a clear indication that we seldom get a spell-binder. I thought, quite frankly, that it was a match of only moderate standard.

Hours of video will have been studied by both camps, despite the fact that the players, basic structures, possible substitutions and set-pieces will all be well known. The French, more than a decade ago under Gérard Houllier, were already in the forefront of technical analysis. They used a fellow countryman of mine, Brian Hendry, who initiated his insightful work when Alex Ferguson was in charge of the Scottish team in Mexico in 1986 after the untimely death of the late, great Jock Stein.

Subsequent managers of France, especially Aimé Jacquet and Roger Lemerre, made use of Brian's expertise and we all know the success they enjoyed. England have for many years been tapping into Brian's expertise and since his Aberdeen-based company also works for Fifa, Uefa and many top national and club teams, confidentiality is paramount.

What sort of things are studied? For countries less well known, the first thing players want to know is a bit - though not too much - about their opponents, especially players in their area and for whom they have responsibility at set-pieces. In the context of this match, for obvious reasons, this is hardly necessary.

Some coaches have the philosophy that if you are fighting the Indians, you kill the chief. That means you man-mark the key player of the opposition. For example, when Scotland played Finland we invariably marked Jari Litmanen, and that effectively nullified the main opposition threat. Against England in our play-off match at Hampden four years ago I used Paul Ritchie on David Beckham, but in the second leg at Wembley, two goals down, I felt it more appropriate to use an attacking player, Callum Davidson, in the hope that David would have to deal defensively with him.

Again, this is inappropriate with so many "chiefs" in both sides, as I found out before the opening game of the 1998 World Cup, when preparing to play Brazil. There is less of a trend nowadays to man-mark, although I am sure that against Latvia it would be wise against such as Marians Pahars.

A surprise to me is the early disclosure of team information by both camps. While I am well aware that training sessions, or at least part of them, are scrutinised by the media of both competing countries, there has seemed to be no attempt to disguise the fact that, for example, John Terry was unlikely to play. Knowledge is power. Therefore information on the opposition team, and formation, is of great benefit.

I remember Franz Beckenbauer sent his then assistant, Berti Vogts, to spy on our last training session in Queretero, Mexico, to see if Gordon Strachan would be fit enough to play the following day. Having been refused entry by the conscientious security staff, Berti borrowed a Coca-Cola man's outfit to watch in disguise. In Euro '96 I trained the day before the match against England at Wembley, a supposed "private" session, using a back four, when in the match we had every intention of playing with three at the back. It didn't do much good, you'll say!

KEYS TO VICTORY WHERE THE GAME COULD BE WON OR LOST

ROONEY AND OWEN

There has always been the misguided notion that a team should have a big target man. I think Brazil, with Romario and Bebeto, put that notion firmly to rest in winning the 1994 World Cup. I like the fact that both the England strikers play through the middle, using the width of the penalty box. This is in contrast to someone like Thierry Henry, who is adept at collecting the ball in a wide area and causing havoc. Henry has been quoted as saying that he cannot just stand around and wait for the ball, he has to be involved in as much action as possible outside the penalty box.

England's two strikers will be up against Marcel Desailly and possibly William Gallas - or will it be Mikaël Silvestre? Both Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney are natural finishers and exploit the space between a left-back like Bixente Lizarazu and a possible right-footed left centre-back, Gallas. The best pass in the game, in my opinion, is a weighted pass into that space. Given suitable supply from the flat, or diamond, midfield, it is certain that Rooney and Owen will do well against an experienced but ageing French defence.

SUBSTITUTIONS

Since the teams are so evenly matched and well known to each other, it may take a bit of inspiration from the bench to decide this match. The French were accused of arrogance when I saw them fail rather miserably in a poor opening match in the World Cup against Senegal. Frankly, I thought fatigue was their failing because many of their players had played in excess of 70 matches.

Although much fresher this time, I think that in the Portuguese heat, fresh legs, and a tactical switch, could be crucial. England, if ahead, could introduce Nicky Butt as a defensive screen or, if behind, could unleash the pace of Darius Vassell. The French have, I feel, marginally more options from the bench, with Louis Saha and Sylvain Wiltord providing fine options up front and the likes of Olivier Dacourt in midfield. Imagine the greater strength England would have were it not for the absence of Rio Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate.

SET-PIECES

There is no one better in this area than England's captain. Although his prowess is widely known, it is still very difficult to defend against David Beckham's free-kicks - which, of course, Fabien Barthez, the French goalkeeper, will have experienced many times in training. Questions asked of the respective coaches will include the use of a sloping wall with the smallest player nearer the middle of the goal, synchronised jumping to give extra height to the wall, and the number of players in the wall. Although great emphasis is placed on the execution of free-kicks, throws and corners, more time is generally spent on defending set-pieces.

I notice that, often, Sven Goran Eriksson brings everyone back to defend against corners, yet can counter-attack very effectively using, in particular, Rooney or Owen breaking wide from the edge of their own box. France, too, counter brilliantly, using either or both Robert Pires and Henry. Pires switches wings to good effect and may have to do so against Ashley Cole as long as his Arsenal full-back colleague disciplines himself to curb his natural attacking instincts.

ROBERT PIRES

It was no coincidence that France were so ineffective in the last World Cup without Pires. Although they have more glamourous players in their squad, the ubiquitous Pires is arguably the most underrated and yet most influential. His mobility, crisp passing and vision make him a deadly opponent. Like many of his colleagues, Henry in particular, he does not shoot for goal with full power, preferring to pass the ball into the net with precision.

THE REFEREE

The key individual tomorrow - and I still haven't mentioned Zinedine Zidane - could well be a German dentist. Markus Merk, the referee, speaks both English and French as well as his native German and has been in charge of many of the players recently, having refereed the Arsenal v Chelsea Champions' League semi-final second-leg, Manchester United several times and the Euro 2000 final. He is a good, strong official, ideal for this type of game.

CONCLUSION

The least I expect is an exciting draw which will leave the small car flags still waving in eventual anticipation of England dethroning the present European champions on 4 July.

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