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11 Jun 2004 00:00
Prepare ye for the greatest show on Earth (until August’s Olympics, of course). If you live on the world’s most cramped continent or breathe football anywhere on the planet, the European Championship is all that matters until the final at the Stadium of Light on Sunday July 4.
There has been much talk around these parts of the heroic efforts of Allied soldiers to forge a beach-head on the Normandy coast on June 6 1944.
Sixty years later England’s task is to invade France once more, against well entrenched defences and notorious sharpshooters, and somehow push on exhausted to greater glory with barely time to draw breath.
Hyperbole? Of course.
But then this is our Superbole!
Sure, the opening games aren’t bad.
But really the opening weekend is all about European champions and deposed World Cup winners France taking on the old enemy England at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon on Sunday night after the relative couldn’t-care-less of the other Group B game, Switzerland vs Croatia in Leiria.
A week ago it was all doom and gloom in England. Frenchmen like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira dominated the Premiership with unbeaten champions Arsenal, while Zinedane Zidane of Real Madrid continued to bestride international football like a colossus.
But then came the revelation. While France struggled to see off the Ukraine 1-0 on Sunday with a solitary Zizou strike, England gloriously trumped Iceland 6-1 at the City of Manchester stadium.
Hey, look, Iceland aren’t a great side. But they’re not bad. They’ve cause all kinds of problems for all kinds of footballing superpowers in the past.
And as you trawl through the pre-tournament friendlies there’s Holland 0 Republic of Ireland 1, Germany 0 Hungary 2, and Switzerland edging out Liechtenstein with a last-minute winner. Estonia 2 Denmark 2 in Tallin wasn’t great for the Danes and losing 2-1 to Croatia at the weekend was little better.
Okay, Portugal 4 Lithuania 1 wasn’t a bad pre-tournament result. Ultimately though, nobody managed a 6-1 win with the young, still-learning strikers Wayne Rooney and Darius Vassell both scoring twice and Frank Lampard and Wayne Bridge adding their contributions.
It definitely got the hype going. Suddenly everyone was pro-Sven Goran Eriksson and eager to buy patriotic St George’s cross flags to fly from the car window.
Victory over Iceland ain’t everything, but England hadn’t won for weeks and it’s better than other pre-tournament friendlies for England like Tunisia 1-1 in 1990, when everyone wanted Bobby Robson to quit.
Look, I’m not overly optimistic about this England team. I fear Michael Owen, like Liverpool hot-shot Robbie Fowler before him, has peaked too soon in his bid to become a real world-class striker.
Sol Campbell and John Terry are both just a bit too statuesque to keep players like Thierry Henry and Raul at bay.
But in the midfield, where I was worrying like mad about the diamond formation which saw David Beckham lose his sparkle by playing too narrow, things look to have improved.
Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard looked grim in the 1-1 draw against Japan the previous Wednesday but last Saturday, in the flat four formation, both shone. And Paul Scholes, despite missing another glorious chance in his endless international goal-scoring drought, actually looked forceful again.
Patrick Vieira, picking his England side this week, suggests the normal back five of David James in goal, Ashley Cole, Campbell, Terry and Gary Neville (my pick for England’s most consistent man of the tournament) along the back. But then he selects Nicky Butt, Manchester United’s largely unchosen one, to shore up a midfield with Becks, Gerrard and Lampard.
Vieira finds no room for 18-year-old Rooney, opting instead for Scholes playing behind Owen.
Intriguing. Me? I reckon Chelsea’s former Hammer Joe Cole may come in to play at some point. He’s got all the talent, just needs the break on the biggest stage. Everyone’s laughing at the idea, but remember you read it here first.
Vieira’s French line-up features former Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez in goal, Willie Sagnol, Lillian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Mikhael Silvestre across the back, Pires or unwanted Arsenal colleague Sylvain Wiltord, Vieira, Claude Makalele and Zidane in the midfield, with the struggling David Trezeguet and Henry up front.
It’s going to be a fascinating showdown. Henry against club-mate Campbell at one end, Owen against the ageing Chelsea defender Desailly at the other.
The axed Barthez in one goal, Calamity James in the other.
David Beckham marching down the right touchline to meet Zinedane Zidane down one flank, Pires against Lampard in an all-London clash down the other.
Or how about Vieira vs Gerrard in the middle of the middle? Oooooooh. Even Roy Keane wouldn’t dare go near that little ding-dong.
Blimey, it’s a tough one to call. After winning the World Cup and Euro 2000, France came home with no points and no goals from the last World Cup.
England have never won the European Championship; the closest they came was that agonising semifinal penalty-shoot-out defeat against Germany in 1996.
Of course, with Switzerland and Croatia to come, both England and France could qualify for the quarterfinals, but the runners-up in Group B will have to play the winners of Group A (hosts Portugal?) while the winners will probably face Group A runners-up Spain.
Tough call either way, I guess.
Personally I have to back France here. They’ve got too much quality running throughout the team. I’ve heard all this stuff about Henry being unable to play at his Highbury highest at international level.
But how can that be when he’s got all those Arsenal boys prompting him just like they do every week in the Premiership: Vieira, Pires and/orWiltord will all be there, not to mention ZZ, Makelele and the like.
Apparently it will all come down to that first clash between Campbell and Henry. At Arsenal training they take it fairly seriously in five-a-side games, but ultimately it means little.
This time it means the world to both teams.
Vieira reckons that first tackle will be the vital one. He says: ‘If there is going to be a battle between two players which will define this game, it is between Thierry and Sol.
‘I know them both well, the first time they meet in the match will be the most important. If Sol gets close to Thierry and wins the battle, it will be a big psychological blow. One that could set the tone.”
I’ve got this down as a 3-1 French win. God. I hope I’m wrong. Come on Sol!
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