Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Fighting like cornered lions

    In 1992 England reached the World Cup Final. They played superbly throughout the tournament, winning almost every game they played - only once when they fielded a shadow side in a meaningless game did they lose. They were red-hot favourites for the final, especially as they had demolished their opponents in the earlier group stage. This was going to be it, victory at long, long last.

    You think I have gone completely mad now don't you? 1992, do you mean the European Championships? What am I talking about? This really did happen, and of course in the final England could not see it through and were thoroughly beaten. It was the 1992 Cricket World Cup Final, a minor event in the eyes of three-quarters of the world, but a very big deal in this country desperate for sporting success.

    England lost that final to Pakistan, even though they had clearly been the best team all through that Southern Hemisphere summer. They beat - thrashed - mighty Australia and the West Indies. Against Pakistan in the first round only rain stopped a sporting massacre that would have knocked the eventual winners out. Yet they were completely outplayed by the same team just weeks later.

    England lost the match before they went out onto the field. They were beaten psychologically; believing in their own hype to such an extent that they never even thought the game would be a contest. Opposing them was Imran Khan, a legendary all-rounder and master strategist, who inspired his team simply. He told them to fight constantly, to never give in, to refuse to accept that these Englishmen were superior. They were being penned in by their opponents, they were cornered tigers he said, and they needed to fight like that - just as they had done so often in the past. Believing they were unbeatable, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and the rest of the team went out, and blew England away.

    Why am I telling you all this? Because the situation has now been reversed on England. It is now the English that are the underdogs, the English that are the cornered tigers. And it is Argentina that are the opponents this time - in a football match, this Friday in Sapporo.

    England are in the same situation Pakistan found themselves in 10 years ago. They have played badly, stumbling through a series of poor friendlies and only just escaped Saitama with a point last Sunday. They are now up against a team most of the world expects them to lose to. And it is exactly where they want to be.

    England revels in being the underdog. It suits our modest psyche perfectly. We don't like to be seen boasting, regardless of what our drunken football fans shout out across the world. We might agree with what they are saying, but it is not quite British to actually say it. So it is no good for us to be favourites, we don't like it, it makes us uncomfortable. But when we are underdogs we can celebrate in how plucky, courageous and brave we will have to be. The war analogies can come out - the Dunkirk Spirit, standing alone during the Battle of Britain, Churchill's stirring speeches: you know the type of thing. If we win then it shows just how good we are really. And if we lose, then we can always remind the world we were underdogs anyway.

    This is what the nation has been trying to do since Sunday. The stories about how good Veron is in international games (as opposed to his terrible domestic form for Manchester United) have resurfaced. Batistuta is being talked up as the best striker in the world once again (forgetting that he could not hit a barn door in a Roma shirt last season). 'Look at the bench' scream the newspaper stories - Aimar, Crespo, Ayala, Lopez - 'how can we win?' Don't believe the hype.

    Sven Goran Eriksson is a believer: he thinks he is going to lose this game about as much as he thinks China will win the World Cup. England are never going to thrash Argentina, but then they don't have to do that. 1:0 will do, just as it would have done against Sweden. That is all Eriksson wants, and he will be more than happy with that. England will still be in with a chance of qualification even with a draw, but a victory would almost guarantee progression. Having to rely on Argentina beating Sweden - especially as France are likely to finish second in Group A and meet the winners of this group - is too much of a risk to take.

    It is incredibly doubtful that Argentina would deliberately allow Sweden to win, just as it is unlikely that both Sweden and England will brush aside Nigeria at a stroke. But there is a chance. Therefore England must have destiny in their own hands when they meet Nigeria. And that means beating Argentina.

    This is not impossible. I have written many times that the two sides are very close, much closer than many commentators see it. The game in St Etienne in 1998 was a genuine draw between two closely matched teams - even after Beckham was sent off. England should have won the game, but than again an Argentinian fan would argue they should have. A friendly at Wembley two years ago told much the same story, although England seemed even better that cold night. But on a warm, humid night in Japan?

    Well here is a bit of a misnomer. England and Argentina play in northern Japan, in a climate controlled domed stadium. There will be no raging humidity, or blinding sun. It will be quite similar to playing at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Sapporo has hosted the Winter Olympics before - it is not exactly Gwangju where the humidity literally steamed away under the floodlights during the Spain/Slovenia game. So that evens out the weather factor.

    Both sides have small injury problems - Ayala for Argentina, Beckham and Dyer for England - but neither is as serious as it could be. In fact both teams could be fielding full strength sides, which points to it being an even tighter match. It will come down to tactics, and which coach gets it right. Bielsa will probably play a similar team and style to that he picked against Nigeria - nothing surprising there. Eriksson has much bigger changes to make.

    England cannot play in the same way that they did against Sweden, especially as that meant pointlessly smashing long balls towards Michael Owen and Darius Vassell. Calls for Teddy Sheringham to be brought into the team - at the expense of Heskey or Vassell or both - ring out loud and clear, but that is not likely to be Eriksson's plan. Once Heskey was moved into the centre against Sweden he looked much more potent, but as time was running out (and Sweden were firmly on top) he managed one solitary shot, and little else. The idea of playing him on the left came from the 2000 friendly between the two teams when he ran Nestor Sensini ragged. But Sensini was no Samuel, Ayala or even a Placente - it is doubtful Heskey would be as effective playing wide this time.

    I believe that Eriksson will go with Heskey and Owen up front - I would do that for what it is worth - and that he will look to strengthen the midfield accordingly. Kieron Dyer could replace Heskey one for one on the left, but he was so ineffectual against Sweden that Eriksson may not risk it. Instead expect to see Nicky Butt brought in to the centre of midfield to partner Scholes and Hargreaves. Hargreaves was another player seemingly caught out by the additional pressure and nature of competitive international football, but he is an Eriksson favourite, and may be the best that is available. That makes for a strong, combative midfield. I just fear it may not be one capable of supplying Owen and Heskey. It won't be overrun, but will it create chances?

    Of course Owen only needs one chance, as does Beckham. They will get at least one chance, but so will Veron, Ortega and Gonzalez. It will be a tight game. Then again it was always going to be that way.

    The wild optimism of the English before we played Sweden may have been tempered a little bit, but the country does still truly believe it will win. England are still seen as possible, even probable, champions. Eriksson is trusted like no coach since Terry Venables (and few before him). He is either going to get it all right, and be a hero, or fail and be in big trouble.

    But if England follow the example of Pakistan, and start to fight like cornered tigers - or cornered lions - then things might be a bit more interesting. England can win, if they believe it.



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