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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Super Eagles, Subdued Lions

    Let's cut to the chase straight away - England were very poor yesterday. Nigeria came into the game fielding several teenagers and reserves, with nothing to lose and little more to gain. Don't get me wrong here, I thought Nigeria played an excellent game today, and matched England all over the field, but when you have lost two games and are out of the World Cup already, what happens in the last match is of no consequence really. Who remembers the team that only starts to play once it has gone out?

    No this game was all about England, and England did not live up to expectations. I have written about this all the way through England's campaign. When England are not favourites, when they are not expected to do well, they over perform, they impress. When the opposite is true, and England are supposed to win, things go wrong. Always. And today was no different.

    Eriksson sent out the same team that had outplayed Argentina for most of last Sunday's game, but he forgot to send them out with the same gameplan. Whereas against Argentina England hustled and harried and played with pace, verve and determination, against Nigeria the English played for the draw, and hardly ever joined their attacks up. Butt was a revelation against Argentina, commitment personified. Against Nigeria he was out of sorts, firing off long-range shots and looking less than convincing in midfield. Beckham was much the same, his radar seriously off target not only from free kicks, but also when crossing the ball. This is supposed to be Beckham's forte: to provide simple, dangerous balls. Instead we got aimless attacking that was more often than not stopped by the first defender. As I say, England were poor.

    Good points? Rio Ferdinand again looked assured and comfortable on the ball. The English press is awash with claims that he is on his way to Manchester United for 35 million ($50 million) but even that failed to distract him. Regardless of the fact that no defender is surely worth that much money, Ferdinand has grown up almost overnight. Before the tournament I wrote that the English were likely to find most of their problems in this area - look at what happened against Korea and Cameroon - but now Campbell and Ferdinand look as if they have been playing together for 10 years. It is primarily down to the good form of this defence that England have found themselves comfortably in the Second Round, but defence alone never wins championships.

    Luckily Michael Owen is still looking dangerous up front, but creating one clear chance per game is not really enough from the European Footballer of the Year. Owen has not scored for England yet, while the likes of Jon Dahl Tomasson and Miroslav Klose are charging towards double figures. Owen still terrifies every defender he confronts, but when is he going to start banging the goals away? England qualified by scoring only two goals. Sure it was the 'Group of Death' and Sweden, Argentina and Nigeria were all good teams, but England need to start performing in front of goal soon. Even today, there were a hatful of chances just begging to be put away. England are creative, it may not be all that nice to watch, but it is effective, and it is always going to give goal chances. It is time for the Liverpool man to finish them.

    But England are still more likely to win games in midfield, and as Butt and Beckham were off target today, England could not win. That they were in with a chance points to the continuing good form of Paul Scholes, who could have easily scored when he hit the post with a sweet volley in the first half. Scholes though can only perform well when those around him free him up, and with Stevie Gerrard missing, that job falls to Butt and Beckham. Again today's game proved that when those two are off form, Scholes' impact on the game will be limited. It is a credit to him then that it was hardly noticeable.

    In the end though, it makes little difference, as England set out with a gameplan to get a draw and duly managed it. From now on a draw is never enough, as that brings the tension of the Golden Goal and the lottery of penalties. Will Eriksson send his team out against Denmark looking for a win, as he did against Argentina? He simply has to.

    Denmark have been strong competitors so far, and comfortably outdid the French to secure top spot in Group A. There is no way on earth that Denmark are a better team than France (or England for that matter) but if they keep on winning that hardly counts. The team contains a fair smattering of decent players - Sorenson, Helveg, Gronkjaer, Tomasson, Sand - and the rest join in to make a competitive team. More importantly they are full of confidence at the minute having eliminated France. What cannot be disguised though is apart from beating France at more or less a canter, Denmark hardly blew Uruguay and Senegal away. Uruguay were unlucky not to find an equaliser, and Senegal were unlucky not to grab a winner. But you could of course say exactly the same thing about Denmark - they have been steady, not spectacular, and except for the game against France they have not looked like the best team on the park. But then excepting England's performance against Argentina, I could be writing exactly the same thing about Sven's team.

    Though this is true, few in England will expect England to lose to Denmark - myself included. Why? Well Denmark for all their current confidence and qualifying form lost badly in Dublin against Ireland, and England are a better team than Ireland. Second, lots of the Danes ply their trade in Britain, but this is not at Arsenal or Manchester United but Bolton and Charlton. There was a similar situation to this against Sweden, but the two stars in that team are both Champions League regulars (at Arsenal and Celtic) - Stig Tofting, Thomas Gravesen and Claus Jensen will hardly seem daunting to English players comfortably playing domestically one level above at least. And don't forget that Jon Dahl Tomasson was so poor when at Newcastle that his name became a byword for a player lacking talent. I don't care in Milan, Real or Kaiser Chiefs want to buy him - players do not change that much, and with Ferdinand and Campbell playing well there should be little luck for the Feijenoord man.

    Yet I would be stupid to write off a team that has - after all - just eliminated the World Champions. Denmark could easily repeat their success if England allow them, and if England play the way they did against Sweden or Nigeria then they are just asking for trouble. Now if they go out and attack, pressing in midfield and confident in defence, then England should be OK. I just hope they do not get too over confident. England have to be fearful, be the underdog. It would have been better to play Brazil now, you think...

    So the Group of Death is over for another World Cup. Argentina are out - who would have thought that! - and Nigeria have restored some pride with a combative final performance. Both England and Sweden must now fancy a quarter final place, and if that comes off, a possible rematch in the semi final. England will never, ever have a better chance to win a second World Cup, and with this competition so open and full of surprises, who can predict anything anymore? England's probable quarter final against Brazil will go a long way to give us more evidence - England will have another test against a world superpower and Brazil will at last have met one. It is going to be a nervous time.



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