When England first came to Portugal, in the days when friendly results mattered, they achieved one which was the stuff of fantasy. Even now, "Portugal 0, England 10" raises eyebrows.
Of course, in 1947 Walter Winterbottom was able to pick his best XI and play them for the full 90 minutes, enabling him to field arguably the country's finest ever forward line: Stanley Matthews, Wilf Mannion, Tommy Lawton, Stan Mortensen and Tom Finney. Legends all.
When Sven Goran Eriksson writes out his team for tonight's friendly with Portugal, he is more likely to have nightmares than dreams. The forward line is in reasonable shape but in defence the demands of the modern fixture list have ravaged his side.
Yesterday another centre-half, John Terry, was sidelined to bring the total to four and leaving the England manager with half a team. He is now missing Gary Neville, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand (and his understudies, Terry and Jonathan Woodgate) and Steven Gerrard from his preferred starting XI, an absentee list which will especially compromise the defensive unit.
Terry suffered a shin injury during Chelsea's FA Cup defeat by Arsenal on Sunday. He had a scan on Monday that suggested there was no problem but he felt discomfort during Tuesday's training session. Eriksson, aware that Chelsea meet Arsenal in the Premiership on Saturday, sent him back to Stamford Bridge.
Having already called up Ledley King, in the wake of Campbell's Sunday withdrawal, Eriksson eschewed further replacements. King will now make his first international start in a role he has not occupied since Glenn Hoddle left Tottenham. Alongside him will be Gareth Southgate, who has not played for England this season. Cover is provided by Jamie Carragher, who these days plays at full-back for Liverpool, and Danny Mills, who has played in the centre for Leeds in the past but now cannot even win a place at right-back Phil Neville, after a season spent in midfield at Old Trafford, is expected to stand in for older brother Gary.
Eriksson also lost Darius Vassell to a stomach upset. Again, no replacement was summoned which means, when Michael Owen is inevitably substituted, Eriksson will have to adapt an attacking approach which relies heavily in a quick striker.
With Eriksson expecting to make his usual raft of substitutions, England will therefore finish the match, as they do in most of Eriksson's friendlies, as a tactical mess. This is not fair on the players. In the last fixture, against Denmark, the Liverpool midfielder Danny Murphy ended up as a forward. He was dropped from this squad.
Although there is scope for an individual, such as Carragher, King or Alan Smith to claim a place in the finals the last half-hour of the match will be largely irrelevant. "Sometimes it is not perfect but on the whole I am happy," Eriksson said last night on the subject of friendlies. "They are not a waste of time but I have always said I should not use players in a friendly, like Terry and Campbell [who would both play if it was a tournament match] when they have played three games in a week and are struggling to be fit. The English season is very tough. There are so many games, they are all difficult and played at an incredible pace. From now to the end of the season clubs don't have time to practise, they just warm up and warm down. That's not good for footballers."
The point will be brought home tonight when Eriksson peers into the opposing dug-out and sees Felipe Scolari. The Portugal coach is the only man to beat Eriksson in a competitive match, having coached Brazil to the 2002 World Cup quarter-final win over England. Asked what he learned from that game Eriksson said: "That to beat Brazil English players must be super-fit, and our players were not."
Portugal are no Brazil but they have similar qualities so, for the first half at least, tonight's match could be educational. Semi-finalists in the last European Championship and, as hosts, among the favourites this summer, Portugal are good enough to leave Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Boa Morte, of Fulham, on the bench.
There will, though, be plenty of familiar faces, led by Luis Figo whose goal in Eindhoven precipitated the implosion of England's Euro 2000 campaign. Beckham's Real Madrid team-mate will be making his 100th England appearance and, to judge from the threadbare nature of the defence, which will worsen as the substitutes arrive, he could have a night to remember.
The match is being played in the new 30,000-capacity Estadio Algarve, which resembles an open aquamarine clam shell. With more than 2,000 official supporters joining hundreds of others from the expatriate community, the Portuguese authorities are treating this match as a dress rehearsal for the summer. Trouble is, however, unlikely as any Englishman misbehaving tonight risks incurring a banning order and being made to stay at home during the summer.
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