UNRIVALLED Rivalry

Though placed in different pools, a fifth Argentina- England match is very much a possibility at the QUARTERFINAL STAGE in Germany. The encounter between the two sides is something a genuine football fan cannot afford to miss, writes A. VINOD.

Two teams with great pedigree, Argentina and England would be travelling to Germany, shouldering the vast expectations of their legion of fans in their respective countries and elsewhere. While Argentina would be aiming for a third title after the sweet successes in 1978 and 1986, England has a more onerous task on hand as it seeks to put the record straight since its only triumph in 1966 on home soil under the leadership of the classy Bobby Moore.

In 2002, when Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the prestigious event, the two teams were drawn in the same group. But in Germany 2006, they are pooled in different groups for the preliminaries — England finds itself alongside Sweden, Paraguay and debutants Trinidad & Tobago in Group B, while Argentina will battle it out with Holland, Ivory Coast and Serbia & Montenegro in Group C.

Yet, given the proven track record of the two in the quadrennial extravaganza, it does seem as if the Argentinians are better placed to go all the way. Though it is true that the side is yet to emerge from the shadow of the legendary Diego Maradona, Argentina should still figure among the select band of favourites; its status unaltered by its poor showing four years ago and the failure of the two-time champion to top the ten-team South American qualifiers for the first time since 1994.

The qualifying campaign had proved somewhat of a roller-coaster ride for the Argentinians. They found some of the much-needed solidity and consistency after a poor beginning, before the unexpected resignation of the team coach, Marcelo Bielsa, threatened to blow them off course. However, the ship was steadied quickly by the newly appointed Jose Pekerman before the Argentinians became the first South American team to make it to Germany 2006 with as many as three rounds to spare and with a peach of a win against old foes Brazil, at home in Buenos Aires.

In Germany, Argentina's campaign is most likely to be spearheaded by the likes of Juan Roman Riquelme, Javier Mascherano, Javier Saviola and Luis Gonzalez in the company of the experienced Juan Pablo Sorin, Pablo Aimar, Roberto Ayala and Hernan Crespo. And there is already a lot of expectation from the young Lionel Messi, who now plays for FC Barcelona. The young wizard is already seen as a successor to the great Maradona and there is tremendous pressure on Pekerman to include this gifted player in the Germany-bound Argentina squad.

Despite having an array of talented players, Argentina would be able to make an impact in Germany only if it is able to overcome its inconsistent form and some worryingly indifferent performances away from home. Also by the time the team reaches Germany, Pekerman would also be expected to find an ideal line-up, especially since the side suffers from a surfeit of players competing for the same position. He would also have to define a system that should help counter his team's shortcomings in the absence of a top-class goalkeeper.

England, as usual, was all fuss before it booked its berth to Germany from Group 6 of the European qualifiers. Incredibly enough, the team still oozes talent and could be the side to watch if it gets itself into its winning ways. And leading the way should be the prodigiously gifted Wayne Rooney. He is the player England looks to for inspiration.

Rooney is not the only world-class talent in the side that also boasts players of the calibre of Michael Owen and the midfield trio of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. In defence too, England is quite strong with John Terry waiting in the wings to prove his class at the world stage alongside the established duo of Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell.

Managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson since 2000, England's strength indeed is the quality of talent coursing through the team. Yet, despite the talent the team has often failed to gel during needle matches and this should be one of the main causes for concern for both England and its fans in Germany. England, nevertheless, could be expected to qualify for the second stage without raising much of a sweat.

A fifth Argentina-England match, given the famed rivalries that the two teams have been engaged in, in the past, particularly after Sir Alf Ramsey's off-the-cuff remark referring to the Argentinians as `animals' during the 1966 World Cup, is very much a possibility at the quarterfinal stage in Germany should the two teams get that far. However, such an encounter is certain to be quite different from the 1986 match in Mexico when Maradona almost single-handedly put the Argentinians past the English with his infamous `Hand of God' goal and added another which today is acknowledged as the most spectacular of all goals seen in the World Cup.

Nevertheless the encounter between the two sides is something a genuine football fan cannot afford to miss.

FACTFILE Argentina

World Cup participations: 13 (1930, 1934, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002).

World Cup honours: Twice FIFA World Cup winners (1978, 1986) and twice runners-up (1930, 1990).

Argentina reached the final in their first World Cup in 1930, losing 2-4 to Uruguay. Between 1929 and 1959, it won the Copa America 12 times (overall, Argentina has won it 14 times) but success eluded them in the FIFA World Cup until 1978. Playing on home soil, Argentina lifted the World Cup for the first time when Mario Kempes scored twice in a memorable final against Holland. Argentina repeated the feat in 1986, thanks to the genius of Diego Maradona and could have won a back-to-back title in 1990 but for an Andreas Brehme penalty that sealed victory for Germany in the final.

England

World Cup participations: 11 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002).

World Cup honours: 1 (1966 on home soil)

England, the cradle of the modern game, took part in the World Cup for the first time in 1950. Its glory, however, came in 1966 when it was crowned champion for the only time after the Bobby Moore-led squad scored a 4-2 win over Germany in the final, that was marked by a Geoff Hurst hat-trick.

Since then, England has not progressed beyond the semifinals.

In 1990 in Italy, it reached the semifinals, but was eliminated by eventual champions Germany in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout.