The first ever meeting between Group B favourites England and Trinidad & Tobago kicks off this afternoon in Nurmemberg.
The match provides arguably the biggest contrast of the entire tournament, with established giants England – the founders of the sport – taking on a country whose population of 1.3 million is the smallest of any side ever to appear in the World Cup Finals.
England will be hoping that their 6-0 victory over Jamaica in the build-up to the tournament will be an omen for today’s game against fellow Caribbean opposition. Meanwhile, the ‘Soca Warriors’ will look to cause an even bigger upset than their 0-0 draw against Sweden in their opening match last Saturday.
Trinidad & Tobago’s confidence will be high after their opening performance and they will enter the game with absolutely no fear of defeat – not even the most optimistic of Caribbean-based pundits are expecting anything else. All of the pressure will therefore be focussed on the England team despite their opening victory over Paraguay that has put them on top of Group B at this early stage.
There are three major factors in the Caribbean qualifiers’ favour. Despite failing to win a match while in charge of his native Holland at Italia 90, their coach Leo Beenhakker is wily and vastly experienced, and he has already had a positive impact on the squad. The former Ajax and Real Madrid boss has instilled a mental toughness into his players, having inherited a squad that, in his opinion, lacked cohesion and a team ethic.
“After I started the job last April we had twenty players but no team,” he revealed on the eve of the World Cup.
“My first task was to change this and to omit some players that lacked determination. A strong will-to-win is perhaps the most important attribute an underdog can have. What we lack in experience and technical ability we can make up for in other areas.”
This mental toughness has already been in evidence at the finals, after Trinidad & Tobago overcame a barrage of Swedish pressure and a red card to secure an unlikely result last Saturday.
Secondly, the presence of former Aston Villa and Manchester United star Dwight Yorke in the squad ensures the presence of a player with genuine class despite his advancing years. Yorke recently moved to Australia to play for Sydney FC and has been training with Manchester United for the last couple of months following the end of the A-League season. The captain’s new-found maturity and sense of responsibility has led to a change of position. The striker has been moved from his natural position up-front into midfield by Beenhakker, as the coach believes his captain can more easily influence the game and organise his relatively inexperienced colleagues from that position.
The fact that most of the squad play their domestic football in the UK is further factor in the ‘Soca Warriors’ favour. It will be impossible for them to claim a lack of knowledge of their opponents, despite many of them playing in the UK’s lower leagues. However, veteran goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, Yorke, striker Stern John and reserve forward Kenwynne Jones do have Premiership experience, while centre-half Marvin Andrews was a Scottish title winner in the 2004-05 season with Glasgow Rangers.
“The England game will be a very special day for us,” West Ham keeper Hislop said on Tuesday.
“In our 23 man squad, 15 ply their club trade in the UK and Dwight Yorke is a legend of British football following his role in Manchester United treble-winning season in 1999. It’s a day that we’ve been looking forward to for a very long time and we can’t wait for it.”
Beenhakker is aware of the task facing his team, but having masterminded the unexpected against the Swedes he is not ruling out the possibility of a repeat performance.
“It’s a big challenge, but we can cause them problems,” the Dutchman predicted.
“In football, nothing is impossible. That is what the sport is all about. Every week most of my squad see the England players on television and they are their heroes. Now they get to play against them. For them it is a fairytale, but we are hopeful of a happy ending.”
In typically abrasive fashion, Beehakker also revealed what he thought was England’s main weakness – a lack of goals from open play.
“In the last two matches that England have played they scored six times against Jamaica and once against Paraguay. Five of these goals were from dead balls,” he said.
“It is part of the game and we will have to be wary of this, but it means that they are struggling at beating opponents by playing good football and creating chances.”
England will be confident of a comfortable victory this evening, despite their usual slow start against the South American qualifiers Paraguay on Saturday. Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team took a quick first-half lead but failed to build on it. Some observers have concluded that the 1-0 victory was even harsh on the Paraguayans, who had the better of the second-half exchanges.
England’s sympathisers have been quick to use the afternoon heat as the excuse for their poor second-half showing on Saturday. However, the fact that England have been far more effective in the first-half throughout Eriksson’s tenure means that such an explanation has been greeted with suspicion by media and fans alike. England have exited after second-half capitulations in their last two major tournaments and, though the stakes are far smaller this afternoon, fans will be looking for them to perform effectively for ninety minutes. With the game taking place at 6pm local time today, the heat cannot be used as an excuse this time round.
Despite the now customary pressure surrounding England’s Swedish coach, and the usual high expectations that surround any England bid for a major title, if England win as expected this evening and avoid defeat against Sweden in the final group match next week they will progress as group winners. Eriksson is therefore very close to achieving his first target at the finals and, with Ecuador or Costa Rica the likely opponents in the next round, the harbingers of doom will quickly disappear.
Much of the pressure owes to the fact that it is almost universally agreed that England have the best crop of players at their disposal since they traveled to the 1970 World Cup in Mexico as holders. Only Spain and Brazil have a midfield as blessed as England, though fans will be hoping that skipper David Beckham, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can finally begin to perform as a unit. There is no better opportunity to do so and build their confidence than the match this evening. England are also very solid in defence, and once again it is difficult to find a team with a better group of players. The unit boasts an enviable mix of strength and pace, while Chelsea’s John Terry is a live and consistent threat from his captain’s famed set-pieces.
Most of the debate has surrounded England’s strike-force, with the media circus continually switching its focus towards each of England’s four forwards in the run up to the finals. The obvious debate about the fitness of first-choice pair Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney has taken up most of the column inches. However, the other questions regarding the merits of Eriksson’s inclusion of 17 year-old Theo Walcott and whether Liverpool’s giant Peter Crouch has the class for international football have also been widely discussed by media and fans in equal measure.
Liverpool’s Crouch, who initially went almost 24 hours without a goal for his new club following his move from Southampton in summer 2005, has done much to ease the pressure on himself through his goals in the warm-up games and an effective performance against Paraguay. Walcott, however, remains untested at the highest level, Owen seems to be lacking match fitness after six months out and Rooney, England’s most likely match-winner, will probably not feature until next week’s game against Sweden after breaking his foot at the end of April.
Crouch and Owen are likely to start this afternoon and, following his withdrawal after 55 minutes against Paraguay, Owen will be hoping for a full 90 minutes to build up his fitness and a couple of goals to restore his confidence and sharpness. Eriksson has been making positive noises for several days about Rooney’s wellbeing, but the Manchester United forward is unlikely to be risked prematurely, even as a substitute. There are far more significant tests to come, and to risk injury to the nation’s most prized asset could see Eriksson’s already wavering popularity plummet to a record low.
Despite their opponents being 28/1 outsiders for tonight’s match, the England camp are making all the right noises about being professional.
“Potentially they have got good players who can hurt us,” Beckham predicted on Wednesday afternoon.
“It is up to us to forget about what is being said about how easy this game should be. We have to go into it thinking we are playing the best team in the World Cup.”
It is hard to realistically predict anything other than a decisive England win, despite them being on a hiding to nothing. Should they win comfortably, they will be told that it was expected. Anything else would be a disastrous. The only change for Eriksson is a forced one – the replacement of Gary Neville at right-back by Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher. Neville suffered a calf strain in training yesterday and is unlikely to return until the quarter-final stage, should England make it.
By Mark Robinson
England: Robinson; Carragher, Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole; Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, J Cole; Crouch, Owen
Trinidad & Tobago: Hislop; Lawrence, Sancho, Gray, Edwards; Samuel, Birchall, Yorke, Theobald, Jones; John
Referee: Referee: Toru Kamikawa (Japan)