Scolari's bold beliefs put Eriksson to shame

International Friendlies: Portugal coach's decisive style shows his English counterpart the way forward
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The Independent Football

The result was never going to matter here, we knew that, as we usually do, when Sven Eriksson started talking again about "little experiments". But on this occasion maybe the England coach of constantly shifting patterns was simply reflecting a reality imposed on a day of withering heat and disillusionment 20 months ago.

That was when England's best chance of winning the World Cup in 36 years drifted away on a sea of tactical futility. It meant that whatever happened last night, Eriksson could do little to take away the edge his rival - and conqueror in the Far East - Luiz Felipe Scolari would carry into a possible European Championships quarter-final with Portugal.

Last night was the kind of sparring which the Swede floods with bodies and soft-edged future possibilities and though Scolari indicated he was prepared to match Eriksson substitute for substitute in this game, the man who led Brazil to the 2002 World Cup - and beat England in the quarter-final despite going down to 10 men - has a naturally more decisive style.

It is one unlikely to be deterred by the rather staggering disruption of his team's clear ascendancy 90 seconds into the second half. Ledley King of Spurs, who was supposed to be lacerated in his now unfamiliar role in the middle of defence, launched himself at a free-kick by David Beckham and forced the ball in off a Portuguese defender. Scolari's instinct is insulated against such unlikely events, and when the field was invaded by the usual flood of replacements - amazingly enough, in England's case they included the generally discredited Danny Mills - Portugal continued in the mode that their coach had laid down in his first training session.

He picks, relentlessly, those he considers to be his best players - and he tells them to play. That showed in some sumptuous early moves from the Portuguese. Luis Figo, anointed by the great Eusebio in a pre-game ceremony celebrating the Real Madrid virtuoso's 100th cap, chipped a free-kick inches beyond the far post as David James gaped. Rui Costa, conjuring some disconcerting memories of the night he turned Kevin Keegan's England inside out in Eindhoven during Euro 2000, sent Simao away with a pass that ransacked the cover of the necessarily low echelon central defence pairing of Gareth Southgate and King.

It was the bold football demanded by a man of such conviction in his own beliefs and priorities that here in Portugal he follows the classic Brazilian pattern of throwing open all training sessions.

Scolari's approach is that you play your best players whenever you can - and you show the world what you think you can. If you are beaten, worse things happen in the streets of Rio and Sau Paulo.

He dismissed Porto's popular goalkeeper Vitor Baia from the squad - and shrugged when his decision drew howls of protest in much of northern Portugal. He also sent the veteran Sergio Conceicao, another crowd-pleaser into limbo with the lordly comment, "If I refused to listen 170 million Brazilians, why would I bow to 10 million Portuguese?" Scolari stepped into the middle of Brazil's love affair with the ageing maverick Romario but that was all forgotten when "Big Phil" came home from Japan with the nation's fifth World Cup.

Now the challenge is to deliver Portugal's first major tournament victory and it is one that will plainly not perish for any lack of aggressive purpose. There wasn't a whole lot of that evident in England's first half performance, but of course Eriksson's stall is almost invariably set out sparingly on these occasions.

What is never in doubt is English durability and when the Portuguese equalised with a stupendously struck free-kick by Pauleta it was part of a tide of attack which had mostly been repulsed with some assurance. Cristiano Ronaldo joined the carnival with some of his usual high-stepping optimism - at the other end Joe Cole was frustrated by goalkeeper Ricardo when another of his cameo performances looked likely to yield a goal.

The point of the game - if there ever was one in the mind of Eriksson - had plainly passed. Figo had left without scoring the goal he clearly yearned for, Beckham had moved to the central role he craves in an England shirt, and the clock wound down with every decreasing purpose.

What we were left with was another example of England's meandering approach to a major tournament. It is one, given the quality of leading players like the largely anonymous Beckham and Michael Owen this night, and the absent Steven Gerrard, that can never be discounted. Scolari, on the other hand, is putting all his possibilities up front. It, too, is a policy without guarantees, but at least on a chilly night it did bring a certain warming of the blood.

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