There’s an hour and forty minutes, and I hope it’s not as hot in Gelsenkirchen as it is in Brighton. It’s absolutely sweltering here. I know the heat is no excuse, but if it’s anything there like it is here, they’ll be slowed down to a crawl within about five minutes. The title of this piece is something of a rhetorical question. Of course they “can”. Whether they “will” or not is, however, a completely different question.
First, then, the bad news. England have struggled in every match they’ve played in this World Cup. Whilst the press slating of everything English has been over the top (as if we could reasonably expect anything better), there are real and genuine concerns about their ability to compete at this level of international football with Sven Goran Eriksson in charge. There have been too many individual errors and lapses in concentration. The tactics often don’t appear to have anything resembling a Plan B if all’s not going well, apart from something made up on the spot. Eriksson doesn’t appear to have any motivational skills at all. How is he going to get that extra 10% out of them if he needs to? I’m not sure he even knows the answer to that himself. If the find themselves a goal down with twenty minutes to play, where is the attacking guile required to get something back against a blanket defence going to come from? Peter Crouch? I can’t see it myself?
Portugal have excellent players, and the issue of motivation is not one that needs to worry their supporters – Scolari is more than capable of doing that. If anything, his players were over-motivated against the Dutch in the last round. On top of that, this World Cup has tended to punish the over-cautious so far. Eriksson is a cautious coach. There is much talk of the need for a “big performance” this afternoon – but where is it going to come from, with such a cautious coach and a group of players that have looked visibly nervous and lacking in confidence in more or less every match they’ve played so far?
Now, the good news. Portugal aren’t all that. They may raise their game as well this afternoon, but thus far they’ve been little (if any) better than England. When Mexico took the game to them, they looked rattled. They’re missing Deco, arguably their best player. And considering that Eriksson has now failed to beat Scolari twice in a row, the Swede should theoretically have come up with a gameplan that can defeat him. England have the goals coming from midfield that I predicted they would need if they were going to progress in this tournament. Wayne Rooney has looked stronger and stronger with each passing minute that he has played. If he’d had an extra ten minutes against Ecuador, I’m pretty certain that he’d have scored. England’s defence, apart from two individual errors against Sweden, has been pretty good. No-one will put in as many excellent set-piece balls against them as Sweden did last week. If they can keep their heads, the Portuguese may lose theirs. And, if all is going wrong, they have the option to throw on Aaron Lennon, who has been the young England find of the tournament. His pace with twenty minutes to play on a hot day could prove to be invaluable.
So… we’re on closer to knowing the truth than we were at the start of this article. England are one of this tournament’s enigma’s, and they’re capable of putting in an excellent performance or a dire one. Personally, I don’t think that we can ask much more of them than that they give it everything, and that if they lose this afternoon, we can walk away from Germany 2006 saying that at least they did their best.