My first reaction after the Holland-Portugal game was one of relief and joy – “England are going to the semi final!”.
In the aftermath, however, that glowing optimism has turned into a realistic appraisal of England’s chances of progressing to the semi-final of the 2006 World Cup – and let me tell you, they’re still looking damn good.
Statistically, England have not looked too good. They have scored 1 more goal than Ukraine and tie with Italy, Portugal and France with 6 goals scored so far in the tournament. They have, on the other hand, conceded 2 goals – a stat they share with Portugal, Germany and Argentina – two of these teams have managed to score more goals than England (Germany and Argentina have 10 each).
On paper then, England are better only than Ukraine offensively and defensively. As for the rest, the only ‘equals’ they have in the competition are Portugal (same number of goals scored and conceded), which is the first encouraging statistic for England fans.
Goals and clean sheets don’t tell the whole story, and while Portugal have looked shaky against Mexico and the Dutch, that opposition was of a high quality and Portugal’s success against them will do them a wealth of good. England on the other hand haven’t had ‘tough’ opponents – but they still made it difficult for themselves.
England have the better players, Portugal has the better team.
The stage is set for someone like Lampard, Rooney or Ronaldo (assuming he plays – despite bullish reports from the Portuguese camp it still looks unlikely) to light things up, but the real battle for me will in tactics.
England could do better than follow Pearson’s advice, although the idea of going on an all-out attack, at least in the first 15-20 minutes, might serve England as well as it did Mexico in their second round clash with Argentina. Portugal are slow starters, prefering to play themselves into the game through controlling possession. England’s best bet would be take advantage of the early passage of play and this is where the whole ‘Lampard-Gerrard’ attacking axis may really come to the fore.
Eriksson has been questioned over tactics for quite some time, and it is disheartening to see England perform less like a team and more like confused individuals in matches that they are supposed to win easily. It may be English tradition to make things harder than they seem, but without doubt Scolari has shown himself to be the better tactician and that’s why it will be key for England to get the advantage quickly.
If the early passage goes without England scoring any goals, then England are in for some serious trouble. Scolari will instruct his team to keep as much possession as possible and will choose to play as he did against Holland – let them come get the ball and attack on his own terms.
This is as much England vs Portugal as it is England vs Scolari. Eriksson will have less of a role to play in this than the likes of Gerrard, Rooney and Beckham. You cannot expect Eriksson to turn into a master tactician over 5 days when he hasn’t changed much in 5 years.
England Team News
Neville returns for England, which means that Hargreaves will move back to his holding role whereas Rooney will start alone upfront again. The rest of the squad is fit and the team picks itself.
There’s is a lot of talk in the England camp about avenging the two defeats in the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004. The quarter-final – and the World Cup with it – is less about revenge and more about the England players being out to prove their critics wrong. Despite the fan support, the media and the self-appointed experts have criticised everything England has done to the point that even a goal is being treated as a ‘lucky break’.
Come Saturday, that attitude will surely change if England beat Portugal and go through to the semi-final.
And make no mistake about it – England are up and raring to prove their critics wrong.
The pressure is on Rooney to repeat his performances of Euro 2004 and carry England to the semi-finals
Portugal Team News
The absence of Deco and Costinha will not bother Portugal too much – he will simply draft in Petit for Costinha and Simao for Deco (with Figo playing in Deco’s position while Simao plays on the left). Deco provides Portugal with drive and creativity in his attacking midfield role but both Simao and Figo are more than capable of filling those shoes.
Ronaldo’s injury, on the other hand, might be a problem – he is slated to start on Saturday but it is reported that he may not recover in time. Other than that Portugal have a full contingent to choose from, and will be in bullish mood knowing that history favors them to win this tie as well.
Players to watch out for
England: Beckham, Rooney, Lampard, Hargreaves, Gerrard.
Portugal: Ronaldo, Simao, Maniche, Figo.
England wins 2-1.