In major tournaments it is important not to peak too soon, and at least England have no worries on that score.
Manager Sven-Göran Eriksson described Saturday’s 1-0 win over Paraguay as “a good start”, but it was hard to see many positives beyond the fact that, thanks to Sweden’s draw with Trinidad and Tobago, England will qualify for the knockout phase if they beat the islanders on Thursday.
Eriksson blamed the heat for England’s lethargy. Whether that is an acceptable excuse for professional athletes is open to debate – after all, World Cups are always held in the summer, and German conditions do not compare with the humidity of Japan in 2002. Paraguay striker Roque Santa Cruz’s jibe that England might win the World Cup but only “if it’s raining” was accurate enough to sting, but with a series of evening games to come, England can expect cooler conditions.
In that sense, it was job done in Frankfurt, and it is true that, with the exception of West Germany in 1990, no eventual winner in the past 40 years has really impressed in their opening game. Yet what is worrying is that England’s limitations were the same ones that have undermined them throughout Eriksson’s five-and-a-half-year reign.
A lack of fluency is understandable early in tournaments, but Saturday’s flaws seemed far more fundamental. As against Argentina in 2002 and France and Portugal in the 2004 European Championships, so against Paraguay in 2006. England, having taken an early lead, retreated, and were fortunate that Rio Ferdinand was in such imperious mood and that Paraguay were so ordinary. Even in the opening half-hour, when Eriksson claimed England played well – “first-half good; second-half not so good”, one feels, will be his epitaph – there were too many long balls hit at Peter Crouch. Route one should be an option; not the default.
Because of injury and curious selection, Crouch is the one forward on whom Eriksson can rely, and if he failed fully to impose himself on Saturday, it was more because of the deficiencies of team-mates than himself. With the exception of the whipped free-kick with which David Beckham induced the game’s only goal with a glance off Carlos Gamarra after four minutes, England’s crossing was dreadful, but the bigger worry is the form of Michael Owen.
Eriksson has said the great lesson he learned from Japan four years ago was not to select players who are not fit, and yet Owen is clearly struggling. Perhaps that is not surprising given the metatarsal injury that has prevented him completing a competitive game since Christmas, but its predictability does not make it any less troublesome. If stamina were all Owen lacked it would not be such a problem, but when Gerrard played him through after 11 minutes, he was outmuscled and ended up flicking an ineffectual jab goalwards.
In the past he would have been quick and strong enough to enable a controlled finish.
That Owen was withdrawn as early as the 56th minute seemed almost a rebuke from Eriksson, even if it remains barely conceivable that he should be dropped. That he was replaced by Stewart Downing spoke volumes about Eriksson’s
lack of faith in the inexperienced Theo Walcott. With
so few options up front,
he must live in constant
fear of Crouch breaking down.
Sweden’s troubles have left England in prime position to reach the second phase, but after Saturday, more than ever, they await the return of Wayne Rooney. That, or a change in the weather: Wayne or rain – either will do.