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Saturday, July 1, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

England should not underestimate Portugal


HAMBURG, Germany -- Holland, which should know about such things, has warned England to beware of dirty tricks from Portugal's Men o' War when the teams meet in the World Cup quarterfinals on Saturday.

Christopher Davies

That is like Dracula advising someone to be careful as there is a blood-sucking vampire in the area.

As pots and kettles go, the Dutch win the award.

A team, like Portugal, that had two players sent off last Sunday in a disgraceful 16-yellow card display of footballing anarchy and took cynicism to a new height . . . the country that invented the clog are hardly ones to speak.

The loss of the snarling Mark van Bommel to the finals is like an ingrown toenail finally healing -- the relief is immense. The Netherlands gave us Total Football during the Johan Cruyff years of the 1970s but in Nuremberg the Dutch, like Portugal, were a total disgrace.

England will play a Portugal team without the suspended Deco and Costinha, two-thirds of the midfield axis, leaving Maniche with two new partners.

Winger Cristiano Ronaldo, whom many believe was targeted by Holland, is an injury doubt.

Sven-Goran Eriksson may not be a great coach, but as he prepares to leave England the man who has an eye for the ladies is happy to be in bed with Lady Luck.

Portugal has half the team on one yellow card but England should ignore that statistic.

Luis Figo and the others carrying the threat of a caution from the Holland rollerball exhibition will not worry about that. Win and worry about missing the semifinal later will be their attitude in Gelsenkirchen.

What Eriksson and his coaching team should have noticed is that Portugal has a tendency to retaliate. This, of course, is not to suggest the country that invented football would stoop to such an unprofessional tactic of deliberately goading the opposition to get them cautioned or sent off (stops while he uncrosses his fingers).

The column will also conveniently overlook Peter Crouch pulling the hair of Brent Sancho so the defender could not jump as he opened the scoring for England against Trinidad and Tobago, prompting the memorable line: "Crouch has broken the dreadlock . . ."

It will be interesting to see how Portugal handles Wayne Rooney, who is frustrated by his lack of match fitness. Rooney's fuse can at times be so short as to be invisible and Portugal will be aware that the Manchester United striker too often rises to the bait.

While at his best -- in fact, even not at his best -- Rooney is England's main hope of goals yet his international scoring record over the last two years is poor.

England scored 21 goals in its qualifying ties of which Rooney scored . . .er, none. He has yet to score in Germany, so his last competitive goals for England were against Croatia at Euro 2004.

There could be no better time to get the scoring show on the road again than against Portugal.

Another fascinating sideshow will be Portugal captain Luis Figo, immensely talented and still a huge influence even if his best days are behind him.

Figo is never one to waste the opportunity to confirm for the referee, in case the official is in doubt, that yes he was fouled.

If England gives Figo the chance to fall over it is an offer he is unlikely to refuse, though, in fairness the Inter Milan midfielder is not alone in the tumble stakes.

Or holding his face when a hand comes within 50 cm of it.

And then, of course, there is Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who came close to being named Eriksson's successor apart from being the Swede's nemesis.

The Truck, The Drill Sergeant, Big Phil . . . Scolari has collected a number of nicknames in his career while he has also collected a number of records.

He has a World Cup record of 11 consecutive coaching victories -- seven games with unbeaten Brazil in the 2002 tournament four (so far) in Germany.

He has never lost a World Cup match. He is the longest-serving Portugal coach with 47 games in charge and a record 31 (thirty one) victories.

Scolari could yet become the first coach to win the World Cup title with two different countries.

Four years ago his Brazil beat England in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, while at Euro 2004 Scolari's Portugal ended English hopes of success again.

Do not rule out a memorable hat trick for Big Phil which would leave the blazers at the Football Association with the reddest of faces if the man who came so close to joining them dictates when Eriksson's reign finally ends.

Alan Green (BBC Five Live commentator) on the failure of English referee Graham Poll to send off Croatia's Josep Simunic despite showing him the yellow card twice: "This has been a ludicrous refereeing performance . . . pack your bags son, you're going home."

Alan Green (BBC Radio Five Live commentator) on Ronaldo's second goal in Yokohama as Brazil beat Germany 2-0 in the 2002 World Cup final: " . . . and Ronaldo wins the World Cup for Germany."

This is not to say that the affable Green is a poor commentator, far from it. Like Poll, he made a human error. We all make them from time to time.

Poll arrived at Germany 2006 with a big chance of refereeing the final, England permitting.

For the first time in 26 years as a match official he failed to send off a player after cautioning him twice, the situation compounded when he showed Simunic a THIRD yellow card and then the red card for comments made after the final whistle.

For transgressing law Poll was sent home. He has no argument with that decision and the punishment Poll will suffer will be the jibes from players, managers, supporters and the media.

Despite his mistake in Stuttgart, Poll remains not only the Premiership's finest referee but one of the best in Europe and the world.

His three-card trick does not make him a bad referee, merely a good referee who made a bad error. Poll has been an easy and obvious target over the past 10 days which he expected. Referees can live with people disagreeing about a penalty, disallowed goal or what have you.

What Poll did, or rather did not do, will haunt him forever and he will be desperately hoping England beats Portugal, not just because he always wants England to win at everything, but if they reach the semifinal it would mean he could not have refereed the final anyway.

A very small crumb of comfort.

Some have delighted in Poll's current situation, yet as the referee from Tring is hammered by columnists, commentators and the odd ex-referee not quite good enough to make the FIFA list, Diego Maradona seems to be something of a cult figure at Germany 2006.

It has been squirmingly embarrassing to see Maradona play to the cameras at every Argentina match. For the record, while an undoubtedly talented player Maradona is a drug-taking cheat.

He punched the ball past Peter Shilton, the famous 'Hand of God' goal against England at Mexico '86 while at USA '94 he failed a drug test.

Perhaps Maradona has served his sentence and his sheer talent deserves to make him a cult figure.

Poll handled himself with the dignity and professionalism one would have expected from such strong character after his mistake in Stuttgart, and certainly deserves a more understanding approach from the public when he referees his next game in August.

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


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