The recent Americanised remake of The Italian Job having already been panned, English football's new version, set in downtown Istanbul, is hoping not to go the same way. The sport's original, it will be remembered, was a thriller in Rome six years ago, an audacious heist in which England's finest, with Glenn Hoddle in the Michael Caine role, stole a World Cup place worth its weight in gold from under the noses of the locals with a combination of daring and diligence, pluck and luck.
Final auditions for next month's eagerly awaited new production took place at Old Trafford last Wednesday, and left the critics underwhelmed once again: "Awful" - Manchester Evening News; "Insipid" - The Times. Indeed, one of the highlights was an appear-ance during the interval by Jude Law (did they mean to invite Denis?), who probably felt he could do a more effective job than "Beatts", the outfit's supposed hit-man.
Sven Goran Eriksson, the understated mastermind mirroring Caine's sex-appeal behind the specs, was simultaneously reminding his gang of what was required, and before too long the door had duly been blown off and the prize was in full view. "A professional job," purred the Swede, ignoring the messy debris. But now for the hard bit - perfecting a way of getting out of Turkey with the swag.
The thing to remember about Eriksson, an old acquaintance once suggested, is that after all his experiences with Serie A clubs, he is "50 per cent Swedish but 100 per cent Italian". It was an interesting assessment, with which the man himself appeared to concur late on Wednesday night, while admitting that where football is concerned, Italianate methods do not naturally suit the British psyche.
"We are not good at keeping the ball in the last 10 minutes," he said, reiterating a criticism aimed at Joe Cole in the previous home game, against Croatia. "I'm Italian [in that respect]. All the great football nations want to win with style, but I think in international football today you can't always. You have to suffer for it and work for it.
"But we should try to play how we want to play - pay attention to the opponents, of course, but I don't think our mentality is just to try to make a draw, like Inter many years ago under Herrera. If they scored a goal in Europe at that time, the game was over. England can't play for a draw, so we have to play our game."
That game, as it has evolved in 32 matches under Eriksson (19 wins and four defeats), has nevertheless been most effective in the counter-attacking mode once perceived to be the forte of devious continentals rather than up-and-at-'em Brits. England, in other words, are becoming more like Gérard Houllier's Liverpool than Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. That was how the two outstanding results under Eriksson, 5-1 against Germany and 1-0 against Argentina, were achieved - neither of them, significantly, at home, where the onus is on his team to make the play and risk being caught short in defence.
As Munich showed, an away game in which the opposition bring the game to England instead of sitting back and hitting them on the break can play into their hands. It was therefore all the more important that six points were garnered from last week's matches, against Macedonia and Liechtenstein, so that Turkey, now relegated to second place, will be the team forced to attack on 11 October. Their performance in a 2-2 draw against the Republic of Ireland last Tuesday suggested they will do so with vim, vigour and short, sharp passing, but that the defence may be vulnerable and desperately needs Barcelona's goalkeeper Rustu Recber to have recovered from the knee injury he sustained in Dublin.
Not that a seat almost adjacent to the Turkish contingent at Old Trafford the following evening offered any sighting of alarm or despondency. As the first half in particular progressed, the smiles on the faces of their coach, Senol Gunes, and his compatriots appeared to broaden by the minute. By the time the observers slipped away into the night, they had seen England register a mere two goals, for an aggregate of four in three hours against Liechtenstein, as opposed to Turkey's eight; all four, as well, resulting from headers by Michael Owen or David Beckham's free-kicks and crosses. Clear message to Aston Villa's Alpay Ozalan (who has already kept Owen scoreless once this season) and his cohorts: do not allow the little striker free headers, do not concede free-kicks within Beckham range, but sit tight on the England captain, niggling him as much as you can (an occasional pull on the ponytail is recommended).
Furthermore, young Wayne Rooney - who must now start, preferably as a second striker just behind Owen - needs to be man-marked rather than left to wreak the havoc achieved with his touch and vision on Wednesday.
If the Turks had been granted one more wish, it would have been that Beckham, Steven Gerrard or both would have been lured into one mistimed challenge or momentary indiscretion to bring another yellow card and consequent suspension.
The English pair managed to avoid that fate by a policy, unknown in competitive football, of not making any tackles, seen to hilarious effect in the first minute of the game, when they - and Eriksson - deserved to be punished by conceding a goal after politely ushering Mario Frick through the middle in after-you fashion. The fact that those two players set up the goals with excellent crosses early in the second half was used by the manager as justification for playing them. It took one of the two Liechtenstein journalists present to point out that both came from the right-wing position after the visiting coach, Walter Hormann, unaccountably replaced his experienced left-back Michael Stocklasa at the half-time interval.
Beckham insisted afterwards on putting the record straight about exactly who is picking the England team nowadays: "People get the wrong idea. When I say I want to play, that doesn't mean I'm picking the team. That decision is down to Sven. He is different from other managers, he goes about things in a calm way which players respect." Whoever could the England captain be comparing him with?
That calmness will serve England well amid the mayhem of Istanbul, a piece of high drama for which the script is far from finalised. As Eriksson said: "Every game has its own story." And The Italian Job was, after all, a bit of a cliffhanger.Reuse content