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Saturday, June 10, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Overconfidence could sink England against Paraguay


MUNICH -- England will beat Paraguay in their World Cup opener on Saturday.

Christopher Davies

That is the overwhelming feeling back home, English optimism based on traditional arrogance and the fact that the opposition is relatively unknown so, therefore, can't be very good.

Many people in England are talking as if three points against the South Americans is a done deal, put on your shirts lads and the rest will take care of itself.

Such jingoism ignores the fact that England's record in its opening game at major finals is average going on embarrassing.

In its last 11 appearances at the World Cup or European Championship, England has won only two of its opening games -- 2-0 against Tunisia at the 1998 World Cup and 3-1 against France in 1982.

Defeats by France (2004), Portugal (2000 and previously in 1986), the Republic of Ireland (1988), plus draws against Sweden (2002), Switzerland (1996), Denmark (1992), Ireland (1990) and Belgium (1980) are conveniently forgotten.

Paraguay are not mugs, not a third-world football nation who somehow managed to sneak through a backdoor into the finals.

This is its fourth consecutive appearance on international football's biggest stage and in its previous two World Cups, it was knocked out in the second round by eventual finalists -- France and Germany.

Reaching the last 16 in 2002 and 1998 gives Paraguay a better recent record than Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, Japan and Nigeria, and only slightly worse than Italy.

It has beaten Brazil twice since the 2002 World Cup -- in a friendly in Fortaleza and during the 2004 Copa America -- while its two qualifying matches against Argentina produced a goalless draw in Buenos Aires and a 1-0 win in Asuncion.

England has reason for optimism, but not the dismissive overconfidence that is so widespread, though in fairness such complacency does not exist in Sven-Goran Eriksson's squad.

Paraguay and Sweden will, like England, surely beat Trinidad and Tobago effectively making it a three-way competition for the top two places.

It was not surprising that Paraguay captain Carlos Gamarra said: "There is a feeling in our camp that England are in danger of underestimating a team with a decent World Cup pedigree. We can beat them if we play intelligent football. I think Paraguay will surprise a lot of people."

All teams' opening matches tend to be cagey affairs, both sides aware that defeat would leave them with a German mountain to climb.

If England or Paraguay loses on Saturday they would have to defeat Sweden to have a realistic chance of reaching the second round. And England will need no reminding that it has not beaten Sweden since 1968 in 11 attempts.

"We are determined to start in a good way that doesn't put too much pressure on us in the next two games," said midfielder Frank Lampard. "If we can get a result in the first match it would send us into the game against Trinidad and Tobago with great confidence.

"Teams in the World Cup, especially South American teams, might find it hard to deal with an English type of game that we play better than anyone else . . . with lots of pressure, playing to our natural instincts and working hard even if it means being a bit physical."

ENGLAND WILL have to do without Wayne Rooney -- for now -- after Manchester United confirmed just after midnight Thursday morning that its striker will not be fit for the group stage but could play in the knockout rounds.

England's medical team is now responsible for the well-being of United's prized asset and it has been told to be "very careful" with the 20-year-old.

The United statement said: "The expert independent medical view is that Wayne has a good chance of being fit after the group stage. At that point, the expert independent medical view is that his participation in the tournament will require very careful assessment in order to address his suitability, as he will not have had the opportunity to play in less demanding games."

The second-round game, if England qualifies, will be on June 24 or 25, depending on whether it wins Group B or finishes second.

Rooney broke the fourth metatarsal in his right foot against Chelsea on April 29 and has not played since.

It is difficult not to believe commercial interests were a significant factor in Rooney officially becoming a member of England's World Cup squad, with millions of pounds of endorsements and sponsorship riding on his presence in Germany.

While one can only sympathize with Rooney or any player facing the prospect of missing out on a World Cup, at the same time the striker cannot possibly reach match fitness after such a long lay-off with no reserve game to help his physical condition.

Though it can be argued whether it is being professional or unsporting, if and when Rooney does play in the finals it is fair to assume an opponent will introduce himself to the England international by "accidentally" treading on his troublesome foot.

Should England reach the second round, Rooney will probably only be used as a substitute for reasons of fitness and team harmony -- how does Sven-Goran Eriksson drop a striker, probably Peter Crouch, who has helped the team to reach the last 16?

EXPECT VIRTUALLY every penalty to be scored during the World Cup finals after FIFA instructed referees to implement the law rigorously.

If players from both teams encroach as a penalty is taken -- failing to remain 10 meters from the ball -- the kick will be retaken.

When a goalkeeper does not stay on his line until the ball has been played he will find an unconverted penalty retaken.

In other words, if a goalkeeper saves the penalty he will almost certainly be deemed to have moved before the kick was taken. It will take a super save or a dreadful kick for a penalty not to be scored.

Players will soon get the message. It will probably take two encroachments to be punished by the kick being retaken for teams to realize they cannot "run in" as the penalty taker approaches the ball. They must wait until it has been kicked.

There will be moans and claims that FIFA is ruining the game, but the team awarded the penalty should have every advantage to score from the kick.

We saw in the 2005 Champions League final how Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek was allowed to move before the ball was kicked to an extent he was well off his line when it was struck, making the crucial shootout saves against AC Milan a lot easier.

This type of illegal goalkeeping will not be allowed in Germany.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal, Chelsea and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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