World Cup picture

Published : Oct 06, 2001 00:00 IST

ON October 6, a multitude of action in the World Cup eliminators will give us a pretty clear picture of which teams will go straight into the Finals and which into the play offs. Goodness knows we have seen of late plenty of surprises, perhaps the greatest one of all being England's thumping 5-1 win in Munich against the Germans. It wasn't so long ago that gloomy Howard Wilkinson, head of coaching at the Football Association, was whingeing that England should give up all hope of qualifying for 2002 and think of the 2006 tournament.

Wilkinson had just made an utter hash of managing the England team in a draw with Finland in Helsinki standing in for Kevin Keegan who'd run away from the job after that 1-0 defeat by Germany at Wembley. Enter Sven Goran Eriksson, the first foreigner ever to manage England - and why not? - and the music so radically changed. Now if England as they should beat ailing Greece at Newcastle on October 6 they will win the group and thus go straight to the Finals while the disconsolate Germans will have to play off, probably against Ukraine.

But just how much significance should we place in England's win in Munich? Enthralling though it was I suggest it could also be a snare and a delusion, for we have to ask ourselves not just how good were England, above all the electric opportunist Michael Owen, but how bad were Germany?

Very bad indeed in the end; yet what would have happened had they doubled their lead as they might well have done, Carsten Jancker scoring that embarrassingly easy early goal, Sebastian Deisler missing a sitter, David Seaman belying his years and atoning for his error at Wembley by making that flying save from Bohme? The truth of the matter is that Germany collapsed, demoralised, as one has never known them collapse before and who can say quite why?

Look back at the 1970 World Cup quarter-final in Leon, Mexico, and you find England enjoying a 2-0 lead. What happened? West Germany hit back to win 3-2. Go back to the 1954 World Cup Final in Berne and remember the Hungarians too going into a 2-0 lead. Germany won the game 3-2. No, I still cannot say why the Germans simply surrendered in Munich.

England? Only four days later in Newcastle they were up against Albania, a team with nothing to play for. Was it a walkover? Not a bit of it. For much of the game the Albanian defence held out strongly and in its latter stages the team attacked with skill and incisiveness. True, the two English goals were superbly taken by the Liverpool pair, Michael Owen in the first half and Robbie Fowler in the second, but it was anything but an easy victory.

Should Germany face Ukraine in the play offs in November, they won't find it easy either. The Ukrainians made a very poor start to the eliminating competition despite their roster of talent, but they are now motoring again. And though he is now firmly on message again, getting goals for both Milan and his country, Andrei Shevchenko, not to mention his old scoring partner, Sergei Rebrov, no longer have to bear the burden of getting Ukrainian goals. That talented young attacker Vorobei scored no fewer than two of the three goals in an easy 3-0 home win over Armenia, Shevchenko himself having put in the first. This followed a much harder 2-0 victory away to Belarus who'd seemed in line to pip Ukraine for the second position in the group.

Neighbours Russia look as if they would manage to stay top of the Ist group, despite losing 2-1 away to Slovenia on a penalty which they and their irate coach Oleg Romantsev bitterly contested, heaping abuse on the English referee, Graham Poll. But how much sympathy should one have for a Russian team which under Romantsev, adopts - unless it is playing and winning 3-0 in the Faroe Islands - such a negative stance. Back from his failure in Spain, the striker, Beschastmykh got a couple of goals against Andorra, but by and large is left to operate all alone up front. Not the kind of tactics one feels which could take Russia very far in the Finals.

Holland, astonishingly, are out. Beaten 1-0 by a resilient Irish team down to 10 men for much of the game in Dublin. Too late will the so-called Pit- Bull Edgar Davids be free from his diminished suspension for taking nandrolone; he was badly missed in Dublin. This time the Irish manager Mick McCarthy hasn't thrown away qualification hopes by fielding weakened teams at the wrong time and digging into defence. In a group won by three elegant Portuguese, who made light in their last two games of the loss of injured Rui Costa, the gallant Irish have surpassed themselves.

In midfield, Roy Keane has proved himself a player of major international stature, while the blond Damien Duff of Blackburn has given new guile and alternatives to the attack, now he has moved from the wing to the middle. The big veteran, Niall Quinn, can still be a force but with Duff rather than he up front the ball doesn't have to be endlessly humped forward, high.

Brazil predictably lost to Argentina in Buenos Aires albeit only 2-1 and in the cautious way they played after going ahead with an early own goal, showed again that Phil Scolari is not the manager to bring colour and flair back into the team. Argentina, who really did want to win, as Hernan Crespo their striker exuberantly told us afterwards, actually had to bring on Ariel Ortega and Marcelo Gallardo in the second half to turn the game, winning it with an own goal of their own, but they were already high and dry. Brazil cling on to fourth place but only on goal difference.

Uruguay, after their shocking home defeat 2-0 by little Venezuela (who then beat Chile!) revived by winning 2-0 in Peru and are level on 21 points with Brazil who could still be condemned to 5th place and a play off against Australia, Alvaro Recoba, who scored in Lima, is in the bizarre position of being suspended in Italy with Inter for using a fake passport yet being able to play for his country!

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