Rise of smaller nations typified

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The Independent Football

The England football team have now begun 800 official internationals (two of which were not finished) and the consensus before Saturday evening's was that defeat by the principality of Liechtenstein, all 62 square miles of it, would be the worst result of the lot. With hindsight, that was unfair to a country which proved to be rather more than a mountain range populated by tax dodgers.

The England football team have now begun 800 official internationals (two of which were not finished) and the consensus before Saturday evening's was that defeat by the principality of Liechtenstein, all 62 square miles of it, would be the worst result of the lot. With hindsight, that was unfair to a country which proved to be rather more than a mountain range populated by tax dodgers.

In Peter Jehle, a Champions' League goalkeeper, the Serie B striker Mario Frick and the talented No 9 Thomas Beck, Liechtenstein had players to hold their own in distinguished company. The German coach, Ralf Loose, has instilled discipline and the sort of attacking confidence lacking in teams like Andorra who, as their two games against Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland showed, still play to keep the score down (and generally achieve their objective).

Indeed, Loose voiced slight disappointment that his side did not give England more of a fright on Saturday. "I am satisfied with my team and it was bad luck that we didn't score," he said. So, having already denied Macedonia two points in Vaduz, Loose's once habitual losers should be capable of making Slovakia and even Turkey work hard for their expected victories.

So if Liechtenstein merit only 152nd place in Fifa's admittedly fallible ranking lists, are there, as international managers would love us to believe, really no easy games any more? Results like Saturday's – Lithuania's draw with Germany and Albania's defeat of Russia certainly – support the coaches' argument that there has been an evening up of standards since, say, the Swinging Sixties when England once knocked in 40 goals in six games, 11 of them to Jimmy Greaves.

Such comfortable victories as there are these days tend to be on home ground, either against the real minnows or countries from far afield like Mexico and Paraguay, neither of whom offered much resistance to Sven Goran Eriksson's side on their most recent visit. Even so, Luxembourg's 6-0 defeat by Kevin Keegan's team in 1999 was the only one of that magnitude in England over the past 10 years.

On their own tight little grounds, opponents of limited ambition can generally minimise the damage with a combination of packing the midfield and defending deep, preferably on a surface that undermines the superior side's passing.

Thus, by the early Seventies, teams like Cyprus and Malta were able to restrict England to 1-0 victories on the sand of Limassol or Valletta, while accepting a proper beating at Wembley in the return game.

In a more modern era, the 51 matches under Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle produced only one real romp, Venables' 5-0 success at home to Greece. Even Graham Taylor's valedictory 7-1 win over San Marino on neutral ground (and a good pitch) in Bologna is best remembered for the opposition's goal – David Gualtieri's stunning effort after eight seconds.

And so to Wednesday's visit of Turkey, whose improvement sums up changing standards better than anyone's. Arriving with a goal difference of 0-29 in nine games against England, they will be accorded the respect due to a team finishing third at the last World Cup.

"After the game, you can say it's easy,'' Eriksson declared last Friday afternoon. In the Rheinpark Stadium 24 hours later it was never that.

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