By Mark Robinson
The magnificent Estadio da Luz in Lisbon is the fitting stage for tonight’s first Euro 2004 quarter-final between England and Portugal, in what has become the most talked about game of the finals so far.
Since the draw was confirmed by England’s impressive 4-2 win over Croatia on Monday evening, fans, players, staff and media alike have been looking forward to what has become the showpiece match of the quarter final stage.
At 7.45 this evening the hype and prognosticating will finally cease, as host nation Portugal look to capitalise on home advantage and send Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England home disappointed.
Tonight’s match offers the reward of a semi-final encounter with either Sweden or Holland, and both teams enter this evening’s contest full of hope and confidence.
For England’s Swedish coach, it grants him the opportunity to avenge the defeat inflicted on his side by his opposite number at the quarter-final stage of the 2002 World Cup. Luiz Felipe Scolari was in charge of the Brazilian team that overcame a 1-0 deficit and a red card to knock England out of that competition. Eriksson, whose reputation amongst the English media took a severe knock after that encounter, will be hopeful that his side can inflict revenge on ‘Big Phil’, who became coach of Portugal after his triumphant return from Korea and Japan.
There are both similarities and fundamental differences between the two coaches, who have a warm and obvious respect for each other on and off the pitch. Tactical flexibility and furious attention to detail are hallmarks of both men, yet they have contrasting personalities and demeanours. Scolari is an impulsive, emotional man with a fearsome temper and a Latin fervour for the game, while Eriksson has often baffled the English press with his detached, almost cold approach to victory and defeat.
Despite the glittering array of talent that will no doubt light up the pitch tonight, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this match will be decided in the dressing rooms and in the dugouts by two of world football’s most successful and celebrated coaches. The contrast between the calm, debonair, immaculately attired Eriksson and Scolari, the epitome of the firebrand tracksuit manager, will be one of the most fascinating of the competition so far.
Both men have launched a charm offensive ahead of this evening’s match, with their eagerness to praise one another glaringly apparent in the build up to the game.
“England were a good team in 2002, but now they are even better,” Scolari declared on Tuesday.
“The greatest achievement of Sven-Goran Eriksson is that English football is not the same as it was seven or eight years ago. They play much better with the ball on the ground. That’s a change that Eriksson has made, and I take my hat off to him.”
Eriksson, though typically more concise, was equally generous in his assessment of his friend and rival.
“I like Scolari, both as a coach and a human being,” the Swede declared on Monday evening.
“For sure, he is one of the best coaches in the world – and is a very nice man too,” he added.
The build up to the game has been extremely kind to both coaches, with neither side enduring any fresh injury problems. Nuno Gomes will start as Portugal’s central striker in the absence of the hitherto disappointing Pauleta, who is suspended, yet apart from this change (which many had tipped Scolari to make anyway) both sides will remain unchanged and at full strength, as befits an occasion of such promise and magnitude.
Much of the focus regarding the players this evening has centred on two teenage prodigies, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, and both sets of fans and their media have begun to directly link the prospects of their teams with the form of the two fledgling superstars.
Everton and England’s Rooney, who with four goals finds himself at the top of the tournament’s goalscoring charts at just 18 years-old, has drawn comparisons with a teenage Pele from his usually reserved coach. The Brazilian Scolari, however, has readily dismissed the comparison to his fellow countryman.
“Rooney is a very good, exciting player but there is only one Pele – you could spend a thousand years using computer assistance and still never match Pele. He was, and is, unique in the game of football,” he argued.
England’s players, perhaps worried by their earlier fulsome praise for the Everton striker and the fanatical reaction to his progress back home, have been notably protective with the youngster in the build up to such a crucial game, despite their insistence that Rooney will not be afflicted with nerves.
“There is now a slight danger that people will be expecting too much from Wayne,” Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard warned on Tuesday evening.
“They should just let him get out there and keep doing what he does. People shouldn’t get carried away comparing him to other players who were, or are, world class.”
“However, I can guarantee you that that there is no-one looking forward to Thursday night more than Wayne Rooney,” he added.
Manchester United’s Ronaldo has been shouldered with a similar burden over the last two weeks. His marvellous form since his inclusion from the start in the second group match against Russia has made him the darling of the Portuguese fans and, in their eyes, has made him the heir apparent to skipper Luis Figo.
Ronaldo, for his part, is also looking forward to the match with confidence and in particular to facing the England defenders, who he knows so well from their clashes in the Premiership and FA Cup. Ronaldo will meet his club-mate, Gary Neville, for the first time in a match situation tonight, and is looking forward to facing him and the England defence.
“England have a strong defence, with Gary [Neville], Ashley [Cole] and [Sol] Campbell,” he told the press on Tuesday afternoon.
“Scoring a goal would be great, but I just want my country to win. England are a very good team with a strong collective mentality and great players. Only at our best can we beat them, but we are not afraid.”
While it is tempting to promote the game as a clash between the two teenage superstars, a look at both team-sheets reveals that there is so much more to tonight’s contest.
The tournament has so far been a disappointing one for England skipper David Beckham and striker Michael Owen, while neither Figo nor Deco have really produced the magical performances that they have become famous for. If all four really find their form tonight and Rooney and Ronaldo continue to shine, then the match is set up to be something truly special.
Sol Campbell and Ricardo Carvalho have been widely hailed as the two most effective centre halves at the tournament so far, and this evening fans will get a rare opportunity to make a direct comparison. The unsung anchormen Maniche and Costinha are the keys to Portugal’s expansive possession based tactics, and Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard will be comprehensively tested against the midfield pair tonight.
Eriksson will be hoping that the earlier test provided by the more heralded French duo Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira in the group stage will be ample preparation for Lampard and Gerrard – but tonight’s challenge will be no less arduous.
England captain Beckham did not seem unduly concerned by his so-called lack of form, and insisted both he and his team-mates are full of confidence.
“I am happy with my own performances,” he claimed.
“There is always going to be criticism but I am strong enough to take it. I am biased, but you have to feel confident going into a game like this,” he added.
“We have learned from our experience at the last World Cup, and this time around we have Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney at our disposal.”
The final word must go to Eriksson and Scolari, men who have become custodians to the hopes and dreams of their adopted nations.
Scolari, whose luxuriously groomed moustache and clenched fist give him the appearance of a drill sergeant, is typically confident, as befits a man with a World Cup and two Libertadores Cups already on his CV.
“We certainly respect England, but we are looking forward to the game and believe we can reach the semi-finals,” he declared.
“However, we must play to our very best level. If we do not have total concentration we run a serious risk,” he warned.
“England are well organised and with more quality than in 2002. They are a superb team and it should be one of the great games of the tournament. Only at our best can we win, but I am confident we will show our best tomorrow.”
Eriksson warned that his team will have to defend better from set pieces (the only situations from which they have conceded so far), but was clearly relishing the prospect of being involved in tonight’s encounter. He also took time to praise the England fans for their support.
“I am happy with what we have done so far, except for our defending of set plays – hopefully from tomorrow we can improve that,” he revealed yesterday.
“We are confident – I have always said that if we play to our best we are very hard to beat. For us it won’t be like an away game, as the support we have had here has been magnificent.”
“The Portuguese players are technically very good and they have pace in their side. It is a terrific game in prospect.”
England: James; G Neville, Terry, Campbell, A Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes; Owen, Rooney
Portugal: Ricardo; Miguel, Jorge Andrade, Ricardo Carvalho, Nuno Valente; Maniche, Costinha; Figo, Deco, Ronaldo; Nuno Gomes
Referee: Urs Maier (Swi)