By Mark Robinson
The pressure is on England as they start as overwhelming favourites for this afternoon’s crucial Euro 2004 Group B clash with Switzerland at the Estadio Cidade in Coimbra.
It is a game that both countries will be looking to win if they are to retain a realistic chance of progressing to the quarter-finals of the competition. With France taking three points from their opening game, the race is now on for second place and qualification for the knockout stage.
England kicked off the competition on Sunday with a dramatic 2-1 defeat at the hands of holders France, while the Swiss showed bite and resolution to take a point from Croatia despite being reduced to ten men, after PSV midfielder Johann Vogel’s red card, for the majority of second half.
In 18 official matches between the two nations the Swiss have been victorious just three times, being outscored 42-15 in the process. However, they have been quick to point out that all the pressure will be on England, who have historically under-performed against the so-called ‘weaker’ nations in major tournaments.
For ninety minutes England were excellent against France in the Estadio de Luz on Sunday evening. That was until Zinedine Zidane stole the show and three points for France, as his two goals in injury time broke English hearts and gave the European Champions an unlikely victory.
A repeat of the performance against the French would surely be enough for England to take the points this afternoon, and coach Sven-Goran Eriksson is adamant that his squad will make up for Sunday’s disappointment.
“After Sunday, I’m sure the players are a little bit angry and want revenge,” the former Lazio coach told the assembled media yesterday.
“They have been wanting revenge since Monday morning and they are looking forward to tomorrow’s game. We have to do it. We have two games to sort things out and all our energy is on that.”
Chelsea’s John Terry has recovered from a hamstring injury, and is likely to take his place in the starting line up ahead of Tottenham’s Ledley King. King can consider himself unlucky after successfully subduing Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet in the group opener, but Terry’s greater experience and his superb form for Chelsea this season sees him almost certain to get the vote as Sol Campbell’s partner at centre half.
England’s other major doubt this week has surrounded Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes, who failed to train on Monday and Tuesday but has shaken off an ankle knock and will take his place this afternoon. Gary Neville picked up a slight calf strain against France but, like Scholes, he is expected to start.
Scholes has been criticised by certain sections of the English press in recent months. They have been quick to pounce on the fact that he hasn’t scored for his country for three years, but Eriksson has been happy to defend the player.
Aside from Terry coming in for King, England will be unchanged. The Merseyside partnership of Liverpool’s Michael Owen and Everton’s Wayne Rooney will continue up front. Rooney outshone his more experienced partner in the opening game, showing an extraordinary fearlessness for an eighteen-year-old.
In spite of a lack of European experience at club level and only a handful of international caps, it was Rooney who gave the celebrated French defence most trouble with his strength, pace and technical ability.
However, Eriksson has never been shy in his praise of the Liverpool striker, just 24 and yet the scorer of 24 international goals.
“I have faith in Michael and am quite sure that he will play even better against Switzerland than he did on Sunday,” he explained.
“He is working very hard and is looking happy and sharp. I am confident in him and he has many goals to come. The tournament is long – hopefully.”
Rooney became the second youngest player ever to feature in the European Championship finals on Sunday (behind Belgium’s Enzo Scifo), and a goal against the Swiss today would see him break the record as the finals’ youngest ever goalscorer. It is a record that would make him proud, but he insists the fate of the team takes priority.
“Obviously, looking back in years to come, it would be a big thing,” he revealed.
“But the main thing is to win the game, whoever scores.”
England will be looking to attack the Swiss right from the outset this afternoon, despite worries over the heat in Coimbra. The game kicks off at 5pm local time, and the temperature on the pitch is likely to be around 35 degrees. England have been training in the afternoons to ensure they are prepared, and Eriksson admits that the conditions will be a hindrance to both teams.
“One thing is for sure, I don’t want to see too many long balls in these temperatures,” said England’s Swedish coach. “I want us to keep the ball.”
“We have to be aggressive early, attack and win the ball even if the temperature is against us. The Swiss will face the same problems with the climate too, so we are aware of it but not unduly worried.”
Real Madrid’s England captain Beckham agrees that England must go for the jugular right from the start, and backed his colleagues to prove a point.
“We are not going to take any team we come up against lightly,” he said. “But from the word go we’re going to try and hit the Swiss as hard as we can. We still feel the frustration from the other night, and as soon as the whistle goes we will attack them.”
Swiss coach Jakob Kuhn is expecting an English onslaught, and there is no doubt that his players will be well prepared for it. He is hoping his side can repel England early in the game, which he believes will build frustration and panic in the English ranks.
“The start of the match will be extremely dangerous for us,” he told a press conference yesterday.
“England will have no fear against us, particularly as they need to win this match. But if we resist them in the first 15 minutes they may start to get anxious. I’m sure the English players and media expect this game to be easier than France, and that’s our chance.”
There are likely to be no shocks in the Swiss line up this afternoon, meaning the only change will be Fabio Celestini of Marseille making the starting eleven as cover for the suspended Vogel. Vogel has long been considered the best of Switzerland’s combative midfielders but the PSV man has an able deputy in Celestini, who was part of Marseille’s impressive run to the UEFA Cup final last season.
One player who Eriksson and England will have to watch out for is playmaker Hakan Yakin, who was linked with a move to the English Premiership before joining Bundesliga side VFB Stuttgart. Usually deployed behind the two strikers, Eriksson rates the skillful left footer as Swtizerland’s most dangerous player, and his tendency to drift in and out of games makes him an unpredictable threat this afternoon.
“Sometimes you don’t see Hakan for 70 minutes and then he does something really special,” stated right back Bernt Haas of Sunderland.
“He is technically perfect and can do anything on the ball.”
Hakan Yakin will be the man entrusted with creating chances for the forwards – Stephane Chapuisat, a survivor of the drawn contest between the England and Switzerland at Euro 96, and Alex Frei of French club Rennes. Frei is the junior partner in terms of age, but has become Switzerland’s most dangerous goalscoring threat in recent seasons.
Despite his inside knowledge of Liverpool striker Owen, his club team-mate Stephane Henchoz is likely to be on the bench once again this afternoon as Kuhn sticks to his first choice centre halves of Patrick Muller and Marat Yakin. Henchoz, whose seven years of Premiership experience has been valuable to his coach in the run up to the game, believes that his team-mates can get a positive result from today’s game.
“We have to accept that England is a big football nation and that we are very small,” the defender said.
“But the pressure is on them, they have to qualify. England know they should have won on Sunday and so now the pressure is building on them. We are hoping to take advantage of that.”
England: James; G Neville, Terry, Campbell, A Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes; Owen, Rooney
Switzerland (probable): Stiel; Haas, Murat Yakin, Muller, Spycher; Huggel, Celestini, Wicky; Hakan Yakin; Frei, Chapuisat
Referee: Valentin Ivanov (Rus)