By Mark Robinson
Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England will be hoping for a better outcome as they return to the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon this evening, knowing that they must avoid defeat against Croatia if they are to progress to the quarter-finals of Euro 2004.
England left the stadium devastated, after their opening Group B game against holders France ended in dramatic defeat, and the stakes this evening are even higher. Croatia know that a win tonight will see them leapfrog England and claim one of the group’s quarter-final spots. It is the first time that the two nations have met in a competitive match.
England find themselves in an identical situation to four years ago at Euro 2000 when, needing only a draw in their final group game against Romania, they came unstuck after defender Phil Neville conceded a late penalty that put them out of the competition.
Eriksson’s predecessor Kevin Keegan was in charge of England at those championships, but the Swede is confident that his squad can produce a different outcome this time around. He has promised that the players will play to win the game and will come out attacking.
“We have to go out and try to play our own game,” the coach told the press on Saturday.
“I don’t think we are a team who can play for a 0-0 draw. The approach must be to score goals. When we have the ball, if we can, we must attack them. That will create problems for Croatia.”
“Just sitting there waiting for the ball to come back is very dangerous.”
England captain David Beckham has also stressed the importance of England playing their own game this evening, and will be quick to remind his fellow players of the harsh lesson learned four years ago in Charleroi.
“We have been in this situation before, at Euro 2000,” the Real Madrid midfielder said.
“We only needed a draw but made mistakes and we were out. We beat Germany in the second game and everybody was happy and we thought we were through.”
“Unfortunately we didn’t play as well against Romania and they knocked us out. This time we have to stay strong and there will be no excuses. We won’t be complacent.”
Eriksson finds himself short of midfield cover for this evening’s game. Manchester United midfielder Nicky Butt is still troubled with damaged knee ligaments, but there was better news regarding Owen Hargreaves, who will take his place on the bench despite not eating for the last two days after contracting a stomach bug.
“Owen is not very well,” Eriksson revealed yesterday. “I’m almost sure he won’t be available – he has not eaten for 48 hours.”
“He is very useful when you want to defend a result and can play anywhere across the midfield. When you consider that we are missing Nicky Butt as well, it is a big blow for us.”
England’s starting eleven will be unchanged from Thursday’s 3-0 win over Switzerland, despite speculation surrounding both strikers – albeit for different reasons.
Everton teenager Wayne Rooney, whose two goals against the Swiss catapulted him onto the back pages of most of Europe’s newspapers, is one yellow card away from missing the quarter-finals should England progress. Certain sections of the English press have called for Eriksson to rest the 18 year-old striker in order to ensure his availability in the knock out stages.
Despite the speculation, and also the admission from the Croatian staff and players that they would attempt to provoke a reaction from the occasionally volatile Rooney this evening, Eriksson has never contemplated leaving the striker on the bench.
“He has to play against Croatia and we can’t worry about him being on one yellow card,” the Swede revealed.
“We have to focus on beating Croatia, and Wayne will be a crucial part of our plans.”
Liverpool striker Michael Owen will join Rooney in spearheading England’s attack, despite looking slightly short of his best form in the group’s opening two games. The pressure is mounting on the 24-year-old striker, and the English press have begun to question Eriksson’s faith in him. Many have called for the Swedish coach to relegate Owen to the bench in favour of Aston Villa’s Darius Vassell, who has looked very impressive when replacing Owen as a substitute in the opening two matches.
Eriksson, however, has been quick to defend his striker, the scorer of 25 international goals despite his relatively tender years.
“Michael will start the match again. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he starts to score goals on Monday,” he said.
“All the world knows that he is a great goalscorer and that sooner or later he will score. He played better against Switzerland than against France, and I believe he will be better still against Croatia.”
Eriksson’s assistant Steve McClaren was also keen to offer suppport to Owen.
“Dropping Michael has never been on the agenda for discussion,” the Middlesborough manager insisted yesterday.
“Michael has proved invaluable to England in the past and has played a major part in both our games so far. He will be disappointed that he hasn’t scored yet but he is world class and gains the respect of every defender he plays against.”
Croatia coach Otto Baric celebrated his 72nd birthday on Saturday, and will be hoping that his players can prolong the celebrations by upsetting the odds against England.
“It would be the best gift and I think the players are ready to give me that present,” said Baric.
“England are playing very well and are one of the best teams at the tournament, but I think we can do a good job against them. We’re aware of the importance of the match but we’re ready for it.”
“England play not to lose and don’t attack in numbers. They wait for the chance to attack like against Switzerland, who had most of the possession in that game.”
Croatia will welcome back skipper Boris Zivkovic, and he will take his place in defence at the possible expense of Nenad Bjelica. Igor Tudor will probably be pushed up into central midfield and it should be the only change that Croatia make to the team that performed so admirably in their draw against with France.
“I will be ready for the game although I still have some slight problems with the injury,” Zivkovic told the media yesterday.
“But I would want to play in this game even with one leg.”
Baric has been quick to give Tudor his backing, even though the Juventus man was culpable for both France’s goals in their 2-2 draw on Thursday evening. Tudor scored an own goal and then produced a sloppy back-pass that allowed David Trezeguet to intercept and equalise for the holders in the second half.
“These mistakes happen even to the best players,” Baric said. “It is not going to happen again.”
Focussing on Wayne Rooney and his so-called volatile temperament, Baric confirmed to the press that his team will single out the Everton striker for some special treatment. Uncompromising defender Josip Simunic will probably be allocated with the task of handling the youngster.
“Rooney is an excellent player and a joy to watch, but I believe we have a way to stop him,” said the Croatian coach.
“Rooney collects yellow cards, and let’s hope a red one.”
Back-up goalkeeper Joey Didiluca confirmed that the Croatian squad have discussed what they perceive as Rooney’s weakness and how they will attempt to exploit it.
“The boss has told us to prey on Rooney’s weakness,” he revealed.
“Hopefully for us something will pop in his head. If we can provoke him in the right way, he will definitely lash out. He is a fanatic and, when you are playing off emotions like that, a red card is inevitable.”
Tomislav Sokota and Rangers bound Dado Prso will continue up front and the England defence will have to be at their best against Prso, who was man-of-the-match against France. It was his goal that gave the Croats a shock lead on Thursday night.
“He’s a fantastic player,” England and Chelsea’s John Terry said of Prso on Saturday.
“He scored a great goal the other night and will always be a threat. Hopefully, having played against him a couple of times for Chelsea, I’ve learned from that and if I play I’ll be able to stop him.”
Baric also singled out Prso for special praise, before claiming that his side are mature enough to take all three points tonight.
“Prso’s level of responsibility is similar to that of Zinedine Zidane’s for France,” he said.
“Six months ago we did not have the self belief to beat England and maybe we were scared of them, but not now,” he continued.
“I trust my players and I believe that they will show what they can do in this game as we did against France.”
“Victory against England would really be something special and I’m confident we can achieve it.”
Croatia: Butina; Simic, R Kovac, Zivkovic, Simunic; Rosso, Tudor, N Kovac, Rapaic; Sokota, Prso
England: James; G Neville, Terry, Campbell, A Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes; Rooney, Owen
Refereee: Pierluigi Collina (Ita)