England march on to the quarter finals

THEY’RE RUBBISH. They’re world-beaters. They lack a cutting edge. They’re sharp as a needle.

Those were typical reactions by England supporters after their team’s performances against Sweden, Argentina, Nigeria and Denmark. The lurching from one extreme to the other may show how desperate those supporters are for success, and clearly not all of those four reactions can be correct.

But they do nonetheless suggest a certain amount of inconsistency in the England side, and a lack of a well-defined character. After the quarter-final, be it won or lost against Belgium or Brazil on Friday morning our time, matters will be different.

England shrank visibly in the second half against Sweden, and pottered around nervously against the Nigerians until the final few minutes. In the two matches where a definite result was required, though, they kept their heads up and chests out and showed real courage.

For, while by no means world-beaters in the conventional sense of the word, England certainly fear no-one now. Having rid themselves of part of their inferiority complex when they defeated the Germans in qualifying, they shrugged off the rest of it by beating Argentina ten days ago.

They will not be awestruck by the Brazilians. Indeed, unless Belgium collapse completely when they meet the South Americans tomorrow, that match should provide a substantial amount of useful information for Sven Goran Eriksson.

Brazil were not really tested in their group matches, and against Costa Rica came up against a weaker side with a suicidal willingness to play them at their own attacking game. Belgium will seek to frustrate them, and then try to find out if that slumbrous defence can actually up its alertness levels when required.

The Brazilians should win by three or four goals to one against Robert Waseige’s side, but England will then be confident of exploiting the weaknesses exposed by Belgium. What is more, they will also go into the match with their defence in its best shape for a decade or more - if, that is, you discount the wobbly period against the Swedes as an aberration.

David Seaman will not last much longer at this level, but he does not need to. Three games will be enough. Sol Campbell is solid enough at the back, and a threat in the opposition’s box at the set-piece.

Ashley Cole has built a good understanding down the left flank with the reborn Trevor Sinclair. Rio Ferdinand has twice made potentially fatal errors in this World Cup, but is still the defence’s greatest asset. And Danny Mills was probably England’s best performer against the Danes.

Of course, Mills was also England’s biggest liability on Saturday, and was fortunate to stay on the pitch after completely losing his head at one point. To retaliate after a fairly mild trip is inadvisable, but to do so against someone who was not involved is just rank stupidity. David Beckham, who knows from personal experience the dangers of reacting to provocation, gave further evidence that he is leadership material by restraining Mills fairly forcibly.

For all their reputation as custodians of football’s corinthian ethos, Brazil will not be averse to winding Mills up, so the Leeds defender should take some time to reflect on how easily he could let his team-mates down.

While Mills is an individual risk, the collective problem for the England back four is over-confidence. Certain sections of the media are intent on portraying Ferdinand as the best penalty-box defender since Bobby Moore, but he has yet to prove himself consistently at anything like the same level.

In fact, it would not be stretching a point to say the same thing of the whole team. They were admirably defiant against Argentina, and in command from the start against the Danes, but they have yet to impose themselves totally on an opposing team the way they will probably have to do against Brazil.

Although the margin and manner of victory against Denmark was pleasing if unexpected for Eriksson, the England boss would surely have preferred a more taxing encounter. While the heart of the England team is provided by Manchester United and Liverpool, Denmark’s key players are employees of clubs such as Bolton, and in the end the 3-0 result resembled nothing so much as a routine Premiership win by big boys against also-rans.

To be fair to England, though, no-one has yet produced the sort of decisive performance which makes every other team fear them. The Germans, for instance, benefited hugely from playing their opening game against Saudi Arabia, yet were more than a touch mediocre in their second-round match against Paraguay.

Italy stumbled through their group, Spain could have gone out yesterday, and Brazil have been allowed to have things largely their own way. Yet those three, along with the Germans and the English, have what it takes to win this most open of tournaments.

Franz Beckenbauer was right to suggest that playing too many games takes its toll, but that is not really a sufficient explanation of the many surprising events since the competition kicked off with Senegal’s victory over France. That and subsequent results have partly been brought about by a levelling up of standards, but it should be remembered that, for the big guns, this is the first World Cup to be played on neutral ground, neither in the Americas nor in Europe.

That is why the competition is so open. And that is why England - who before Eriksson took office had just about given up hope of qualifying - now have every right to regard themselves as potential winners.

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