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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England's Irie



    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 the Year.

    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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