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
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It was a seventeen-pass move. Ashley Cole picked up
the ball deep, deep inside his own half, out by the
edge of the pitch near his own penalty area. He
exchanged passes with Nicky Butt, each one barely a
metre in front of the Argentinians. It was fast,
crisp football. The ball went out to Sheringham tight
on the far touchline, he pulls it back to Campbell,
releasing pressure and switching the play. Campbell
moved it on to Rio Ferdinand who punched a
twenty-metre ball out to the other side of the field.
Mills collected it and gave a simple ball back to the
captain David Beckham. He looked up and played it
into Butt. Argentina try to close again, but Butt
pushes it back to Rio again - Batistuta darts in to
try to steal it, throwing his arm out in desperation,
but Campbell gathers safely. Back out to Cole, and
another simple ball to Butt. Argentina are chasing
shadows. Butt to Beckham, two touches, back to
Ferdinand. Then a beautiful ball through the
stretched Argentine midfield, collected by Owen, he
pulls Placente in and turns away. Scholes makes the
run; Owen sees him and slides the pass away.
Scholes runs through, in acres of space. He checks
forty metres out and looks up. Sheringham is making a
run on the right hand side. Argentina are nowhere. A
volley from the edge of the box, it curls in at pace,
swerving and bending as it homes in on target.
Cavallero throws his body upwards and slightly to the
right, his fists thrust out. They connect with the
ball and somehow, somehow it's another corner. But
England still lead.
England quite suddenly found their form. With a
packed midfield full of touch, strength and
determination, free flowing pace and power to burn in
attack, and strong, resolute defending, England
performed like a team capable of winning the World
Cup. Argentina were outplayed, not quite outclassed,
but still comfortably, yes easily, outplayed.
It was beautiful to watch, but terrifyingly tense at
the same time. England have done this at the World
Cup before - against France in 1982, Poland in 1986
and Germany in 1990 - but never had it been this good,
and never had it been against a team supposedly this
good before. Argentina started the game as
favourites, not only for the match but for the title
as well. They were packed with superstars, worth
hundreds of millions of dollars and were so full of
confidence it was frightening. Batistuta was there,
as was Veron, Simeone, Ortega, Gonzalez and Zanetti.
But that proved not to matter.
England changed their tactics but not their personnel,
and took the game to Argentina. It was a bold step
from Eriksson, who has been so heavily criticised for
keeping Emile Heskey in the side. But stay in the
side did Heskey and from the start he was electric,
powerfully muscling Samuel and Pochettino into
mistakes. His distribution and workrate was the best
it has ever been in an England shirt, even better than
his debut two years ago when he had terrorised
Argentina once before, at Wembley. Yet this was a
more mature, intelligent performance, forcing the
opposition to mark him as closely as Owen and creating
more space and chances for the European Footballer of
Nonetheless, England won the game in midfield. Butt
and Scholes were everywhere, and when Owen Hargreaves
limped out with a knee injury and this pair was able
to link up in the centre, they simply ran the game.
Again Veron was too slow to compete with fast, mobile
players. Zanetti made some strident runs down the
wing as is his wont, but the pace and power England
displayed made him pull back. There was no space or
time for Simeone or Ortega to exploit, and though in
the early exchanges Gonzalez and Batistuta ran through
into dangerous positions and unleashed a volley and a
header respectively, Seaman had little to worry about.
Owen was the outstanding attacker on display, his pace
and turns created a chance not unlike 1998. But this
time the post stopped him with Cavallero stranded. It
was a positive start.
Owen would be the first to tell you though that
regardless of how good he is, he can do nothing
without quality service, and that he received from all
sides, but especially from Scholes and Butt, between
them picking up the baton left by the injury to Steven
Gerrard. It was Butt's best game in an England shirt,
and it came just days after he regained fitness from a
serious injury. He looked easily as good as the
player that had dominated Paraguay in a friendly, but
this was a different test, against seriously better
players, and he passed it with flying colours.
There was nothing to fault in this performance from
England, no player that did not do as well as he
could. Rio Ferdinand was another player who came of
age, calm and composed at the heart of defence, oozing
confidence and serenity. His cushioned header back to
Seaman, and the now-you-see-me, now-you-don't turn out
of trouble inside his own penalty area were
reminiscent of Bobby Moore. Nothing could go wrong.
But of course it will, eventually. It is not the best
time to bring things back to earth, but England have
played this well quite recently. Against Germany in
Munich they were more rampant, and played even better.
In 1996 against Holland they did the same. And what
happened over the next two games? Nerves set in, fear
took over and once the superb performance could not be
repeated, England struggled. England won today
because they thrive on being the underdog. When they
are expected to win - just like against Albania and
Greece last autumn - they find the weight of
expectation too high, and too much to cope with.
England's final group game comes against Nigeria, in
the heat of an Osaka afternoon. Nigeria have already
been eliminated, but they have everything to play for
rather than nothing. Several of the Nigerian team
already play in England, and the likes of Okocha,
Aghahowa and Taribo West would like to. This is their
shop window, with millions of English football fans
watching, thinking 'he would be good for my team'.
And of course Nigeria would not want to return home
from the tournament with no points, beaten in all
three games. They are too proud, and too good to
allow that, and England have been warned.
All England need is a draw - 0:0 will be more than
enough - but that is worse than needing to win by two
goals. When you have something to aim at, something
to go for, you do just that. When you only need a
draw you sit back and keep things tight. And if you
have a nice, comfortable draw, but give away a sloppy
goal with only a short time to go it is almost
impossible to get back into the game. England must
attack and go for the win in the same way they did
today. It is the only safe route, and it is what
Eriksson will want to do.
So the second round is in sight. England have a very
good chance to extend their participation in this
competition, and with France stumbling, Senegal hit
and miss, and Denmark eminently beatable, the quarter
final looks possible. If any of these games were
played tomorrow, England would win. The massive high
the players are experiencing now will drag them on
past Nigeria, but by the time the second round and
quarter finals come around there will have been plenty
of opportunity for nerves or complacency to take over.
It is an excellent opportunity for England; I hope
they do not waste it.
But just for now I am going to sit back, enjoy this
victory, and wait for next Wednesday. It was a
brilliant win, but it is only one game. World Cups
are won by the team that has seven brilliant wins.
There is a long, long way to go yet.
Come on England.
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