Why England must keep eye on the ball

Road to Euro 2004: Liechtenstein cast as minnows of the world game but Eriksson's men should beware pitfalls
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The Independent Football

Lest any members of the England squad are tempted to think that Wednesday's European Championship qualifying match against Liechtenstein will be a stroll in the Old Trafford park, they should be made to watch a recording of the last three minutes of the meeting between the two countries in Vaduz last March.

With the visitors leading by only two goals, rather than the eight or 10 that optimistic punters had wagered on, Rio Ferdinand was forced to head a shot by the bank clerk Thomas Beck off the line, and in the final attack of the afternoon, Martin Stocklasa struck a post. The prolonged applause at the end of the game from a capacity crowd of little more than 3,500 was principally in appreciation of the home side.

"A lack of concentration at the end," was Sven Goran Eriksson's summary of that embarrassing little period, which had confirmed that although there ought still to be such things as easy matches at international level occasionally, there was further evidence for the managers' cliché denying their existence.

Liechtenstein, with the population of a small English town, one competitive victory to their name (against Azerbaijan five years ago) and only half a dozen professionals in the squad, had been bright and lively from the start, making as many scoring opportunities as England until just before the half-hour, when Michael Owen headed in Emile Heskey's cross. Only in a half-hour period either side of the interval did Eriksson's men come close to dominating the proceedings, and further tangible reward was limited even then to David Beckham's curled free-kick.

A parkland setting, small crowd and bobbly pitch will not be available on Wednesday as the excuses England's right-back Gary Neville used at the time in stating: "It was an England international but it felt like a pre-season friendly." He will be relying on the Old Trafford crowd and groundsman to ensure that Wednesday night has a different feel altogether.

Eriksson is aware that the conventional English attitude to matches against countries most often typecast as minnows to be swallowed by the big fish also needs to change. As he put it with reference to Macedonia and the 2-2 draw they forced at Southampton last autumn: "When you play not so famous teams at home it's like we take it for granted that we will win this game. Today you talk about Greece, you talk about Albania, you talk about Macedonia - it's never easy."

Those are three good examples of countries who have improved significantly as their experience has broadened, both in terms of playing as a team in international competition and with their leading players moving abroad - only one of yesterday's Macedonian starting XI is still with a domestic club. Albania and Greece have both been beaten 5-0 in England, but on their most recent visits gave an Eriksson side considerable trouble; the Albanians lost only 2-0 at Newcastle two years ago, and the following month Greece were on the verge of a historic victory - their first in eight matches against England - until Beckham's famous free-kick ensured that his team would go to the World Cup finals.

Smaller teams against whom England have tended to have less trouble are Luxembourg (who have been around longer than most without managing to improve), Cyprus, Malta and San Marino. In seven matches at home to that quartet, the English have scored 40 goals, conceding only one, which went past Ron Springett at Highbury as long ago as 1961. Yet even then there have been awkward moments against each: stuttering 1-0 victories on difficult baked pitches away to Malta and Cyprus; a 2-0 win in Luxembourg under Ron Greenwood not confirmed until Paul Mariner's last-minute goal; and the ghastly start to Graham Taylor's final game as manager in Bologna, 10 years ago, when Davide Gualtieri ran onto Stuart Pearce's wayward back-pass to score in the first 10 seconds.

Liechtenstein, recently held 2-2 by San Marino, still belong to the lowest European group, as their spot in the Fifa rankings (145th, as opposed to Macedonia's 87th) confirms. Yet they have also held the unpredictable Macedonians thanks to Michael Stocklasa's last-minute goal, six years after losing 11-1 at home to the same opponents. In the return game of the current campaign, last June, they led with Thomas Beck's goal before going down 3-1.

Now there are three Becks in the squad, Thomas having been joined by his brother Roger, and Michael (no relation). The goalkeeper Peter Jehle has Champions' League experience with FC Grasshopper of Zurich and also worth keeping an eye on is Mario Frick, the striker who still plays in Italy for the Serie B side Ternana and is the country's leading scorer.

FC Vaduz, whose ground is used by the national team, have seven players in the squad and would have been promoted to the Swiss First Division last season (there is no national league in Liechtenstein) but for a reduction from 12 teams to 10. Their manager, the Austrian Walter Hörmann, has taken over as national coach while maintaining his club duties, from Ralf Loose, who not only lived up to his name but upset the national association officials.

Of course, England should win comfortably. Of course, much stranger things have happened.

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