No one expected Sven-Göran Eriksson to be on
the verge of breaking records in only his fifth game in charge but
history, a weighty and unwanted companion at the best of times for
England managers, showed that only Walter Winterbottom - and now
Eriksson - had won their first four games in charge. If ever a manager
looked so untroubled standing on the threshold of such a record -
rather meaningless though it was - it was him.
Having completed satisfying World Cup qualifying
wins over both Finland and Albania, a further victory against Greece -
perhaps England's most testing encounter to date under their new
manager - would bring England within breathing distance of runaway World
Cup Group 9 leaders Germany.
Even in the short period of his tenure Sven-Göran
Eriksson has managed to bring confidence, calm and continuity to the
England setup - three precious commodities often lacking in the national
side. Injuries apart, the only real debating point regarding the England
starting eleven was whether Emile Heskey or Steve McManaman would occupy
the left-sided role. In the event, the directness and power of Heskey
was to prove decisive in his selection and when asked whether Heskey
minded being played wide on the left, Eriksson's answer was typically
candid: "Emile would rather play on the left than sit on the
bench". The remaining ten first team berths were filled with either
Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal or Leeds players. All sides which
were top four finishers in the Premiership last season.
Greece, on the contrary, were troubled by a
variety of selection problems. Having beaten Albania four days earlier -
they had lost two players through suspension (Patsatzoglou and
Georgiadis) - one through an earlier training injury (first choice
goalkeeper Venetidis) and had dropped their previous strikeforce
(Liberopolulos and Alexandris) in favour of the Ajax striker Machlas,
who came on as a substitute and scored the winner against Albania, and
the Perugia player - Vryzas - a striking partnership that had not
started together in five years.
The Olympic Stadium has the potential to be a
cauldron of hostility for visiting sides but on this occasion barely
half the arena was occupied. A small but vocal band of England
supporters provided much of the noise and the inevitable booing of the
national anthems, by both sets of supporters, now seems to have become
the norm at international fixtures.
The early exchanges in the game showed a
cautious approach from both sides although a looping through ball from
Robbie Fowler over the Greek defence on 4 minutes gave Heskey an early
opportunity to go for goal. Only a poor first touch by Emile Heskey
followed by an excellent challenge by Dimitris Mavrogenidis prevented a
clear opportunity to strike early.
England look composed and Steven Gerrard looks
commanding as he hustles, tackles and passes with authority. For the
Greek side Zisis Vryzas shows some quick and lively touches.
Fowler demonstrates his ability to free himself
from a tight spot by shrugging off three challenges on the halfway line
and looping the ball forward for Michael Owen. Only the on-rushing
'keeper, Antonis Nicopolidis, who kicks the ball into touch, prevents
Owen a chance to run at goal.
Despite the lack of atmosphere in the stadium,
there is no lack of physical hostility. David Beckham is pelted with
objects as he tries to take a corner beneath the stand on the far side.
A spinning, leaking water bottle is clearly seen to bounce just behind
him and once back on the field he holds his back and winces. England are
no strangers to missile attacks in recent times. Ashley Cole was hit by
an object during the game against Albania in March - for which their
association were fined by FIFA - a similar fate no doubt awaits Greece
if the incident makes it into the official post-match report.
Greece enjoy much more possession for the first
quarter of the game and England are happy to let them pass the ball
freely amongst themselves. Any attempt to push the game into England's
last third mostly sees Neville, Keown, Ferdinand and Cole easily dealing
with the threat. A snap shot by Angelos Basinas from 40 yards leaves
David Seaman untroubled as it soars well over the crossbar but a
crossfield pass from the skilful Greek captain - Theodorus Zagorakis
to Mavrogenidis on the right is only nullified by a mature and measured
tackle by Ashley Cole well inside the England penalty area.
For only his 3rd cap, Cole is rapidly becoming
the discovery of the international season and could well make the
left-back position his own for years to come. Despite Sven-Göran
Eriksson's rather romantic flirtation with the 31 year-old Charlton
defender Chris Powell - sense and sensibility moves the cool Ashley Cole
to the head of the queue for a starting berth as left-back.
Despite tidy passing and robust defending, the
best chance of the first half - for either side - comes for England on
19 minutes. Beckham wide on the right and deep into the Greek half -
pushes the ball back to Steven Gerrard who sweeps an urgent cross into
the penalty area. Robbie Fowler on the edge of the six yard area rises
and heads powerfully towards goal. Only an excellent and acrobatic
one-handed save from Nikopolidis saves Greece from a 0-1 deficit.
Soon after, the Panathanaikos midfielder Girogos
Karagounis leaves the field with a thigh-strain make way for his
club-mate and forward player - Nikos Liberopolous.
England are starting to look more threatening
and a foul on Heskey five yards from the edge of the far-side penalty
area gives David Beckham a perfect opportunity to fire at goal. His
free-kick, fast and curling, misses the upright by inches - hitting the
side netting and rear stanchion before sliding along the back of the net
in such a way that the England fans think it is a goal. Such incidents,
despite their apparent meaningless do much to raise the fans spirits.
Heskey and Cole provide an entertaining exchange
on the far side. A deft flick from Cole on the touchline leaves Yannis
Goumas sprawling as Cole runs to the by line. His final cross is too low
and Nikopolidis easily gathers the ball in his arms.
Moments later, on 33 minutes, Robbie Fowler -
again losing two Greek markers - sets up Owen with another ball over the
top. Owen - with his two touches narrowing the angle on goal by the
second and - shoots into the side netting - tracked by the Newcastle
defender Nikos Dabizas.
As the first half progresses, a number of
dubious off-side decisions rob England of clear chances. FIFA's rules
about ignoring players not interfering with play seem to go unheeded as
the Norwegian assistant referee continually flags incorrectly for
Greece seem unable to raise their game to
challenge England and apart from the former Leicester City player Zagorakis,
are remarkably unimaginative and unexciting in their forward play.
Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes look at ease tidying up the failed Greek
attacks and Gerrard in particular shows athleticism and intelligence in
Robbie Fowler, picked both for his club
partnership with Owen and his form towards the end of last season shows
increasing skill in getting out of tight corners and passing the ball
forward. He is almost playing in the Teddy Sheringham role - slightly
deeper than an out and out forward would.
The first half looks to be fizzling out until
the referee waves play on after a Scholes foul on Panayiotis Fyssas and
Liperouplous collects the ball and shoots from 30 yards out. The ball
bounces awkwardly in front of David Seaman who collects with confidence.
The crowd, buoyed by this attempt, buzzes with expectation and the home
fans roar. The half-time whistle curtails the 'celebrations' and draws
the play to a rather anti-climactic end.
The interval brings no changes for either team
and the start of the second half sees an early chance for the home side
as Vryzas heads acrobatically at Seaman from an offside position. The
crowd, picking up from where they left off in the first half, cheer
enthusiastically and let off red flares. David Beckham captaining England
for the fifth time Eriksson looks cool under the pressure and the
national side seem to be playing well within their ability.
For Greece only Zakorakis, Liperouplous and
Vryzas look dangerous in their forward play. Zakorakis neatly
sidestepping several challenges as he bursts from midfield and runs at
the English defence. For much of the first 10 minutes Greece look the
more aggressive side and eventually a dubious tackle by Keown on
Basissas just outside the 'D' gives the home side a rare opportunity to
directly target David Seaman's goal.
Liberoupoulous thunders, not once, but twice
into the English defensive wall and spurns what is probably their best
chance of the half. Soon after, the collective frustration shows as
Vryzas is cautioned for a tackle on Ashley Cole.
England begin to pick up the tempo and
noticeably push forward with greater ambition. A free kick outside of
the Greek penalty area on the nearside sees a wicked Beckham cross miss
Heskey's head by inches and moments later the best move of the match.
Heskey wide on the left pushes the ball back to Gerrard who passes
across the midfield to Scholes. His step-over, releases the ball for
Beckham just behind, and he returns the ball to the forward running
Scholes whose accurate side foot pass to Fowler coming into the penalty
area on the right completely splits the Greek defence. Fowler, for all
his earlier skill tries to curl the ball across and into the far corner
of the goal but the shot sails disappointing well over the bar. Despite
this miss, it is England who are now on top and the Greek's who look on
the back foot.
Fowler, for the third time in the match, manages
to swivel and pass the ball between two close defenders to the forward
running Phil Neville. Neville bounces past one player and chests the
ball past another on a direct and purposeful cross-field run. With
admirable coolness, Neville plays the ball into the path of the
overlapping Heskey running into the penalty area whose left foot-
scuffed cross - finds Paul Scholes on the edge of the six-yard box who
stabs the ball home with his right foot. One-nil England.
Almost immediately the Greek coach Vasilis
Daniil takes off Alexandris and brings on Nikolas Machlas to add extra
vitality to the Greek forward line and briefly Greece look more
threatening. Ashley Cole receives an unnecessary caution for a
two-footed lunge on Zagorakis and the resultant free kick floors Michael
Owen barely 10 yards away.
In defence, England have admirable qualities.
Rio Ferdinand shows his exceptional coolness by dispossessing Vryzas wide
on the right - even gaining a free-kick for his troubles.
Another Greek substitution, Stylianos
Giannakopolous for his Olympiakos team-mate Dimitris Mavrogenidis on 71
minutes - bolsters the midfield as Greece search for an equaliser. A
penetrative Fyssas cross from the left reaches Ferdinand, whose
ill-judged and executed attempt at a clearance misses completely, and
the ball bounces off Cole's shoulder and falls to the recent substitute
Giannakopolous. The Greek's clearest chance on goal is only thwarted
by a brave and well-timed block by Ashley Cole. Without his intervention
David Seaman would almost certainly have had work to do.
In raising the tempo, Greece again receive a
caution for foul play. Fyssas on Robbie Fowler. Eriksson makes his first
substitution, bringing on Steve McManaman for Heskey in a straight
positional swap. Almost immediately the Real Madrid player beats a
defender to loop a harmless cross over the Greek goalmouth.
Giannakopolous, tracking a long cross from the
left by Dabizas, heads back across the face of the England goal from an
offside position at the far post and Seaman comfortably plucks the ball
out of the air.
A second substitution brings the first taste of
World Cup international action for Alan Smith with Fowler the man to
give way. Greece increase the pressure again and the game is starting to
open up. Dabizas has an excellent opportunity to head home but misses
the post by several yards.
Alan Smith, straight into the action, tackles
Dabizas with assistance from Beckham and the England Captain drives
forward with real purpose. Such forward runs are hard to remember from
the Manchester United man at international level and only a clumsy block
by Marinos Ouzinidis five yards from the far side penalty area checks
A free-kick from this position presents a real
opportunity for extending the lead further and David Beckham's fast,
curling shot leaves Nikolopidis standing - and stranded - in the middle
of the goal. as the ball ripples the inside of the net.
At two-nil, England look to have taken all three
points and the substitution of Nicky Butt for Paul Scholes (who is
already nursing a caution from an earlier qualifier) signals Eriksson's
intention to close the game down.
Despite an excellent opportunity for Zagorakis
to add gloss to the Greek performance with a free-kick in the dying
moments - his attempt sails over the bar and the game ends.
From a qualifying position where England had one
point from two games to one where ten have been accumulated in five -
speaks volumes for England's progress under the unflappable and
intelligent Eriksson. Seemingly unburdened by the national weight of
expectation his senses are focussed on achieving success on the football
field and not much else. Where England players once drew passion and
hope from earlier managers they now seem to draw confidence and
organisation from Eriksson.
His honeymoon as manager will be severely tested
come September 1st when the 'giants' of Group 9 meet again in Munich.
Eriksson, commenting on this encounter in his typically cool,
authoritative but ultimately realistic tone said "England can win
this game - I think so - but we can also lose it".
What has passed almost unnoticed in the
celebration of the victory against Greece is the near certain
negotiation of England into at least a World Cup play-off berth from a
position where any opportunity for qualification seemed improbable.
Eriksson's record as the England manager with
the best start in history - five wins out of his first five matches -
excellent though it is - will count for nothing if the national side
cannot progress to the finals stage of the competition. Under his
intelligent and organised stewardship England are now a side, certainly
good enough, and maybe even confident enough, to beat Germany in their
own backyard. Before then an awkward encounter with Holland on August
15th will prove a useful warm-up opportunity for England players trying
to shake off the cobwebs of the close season.
one knows where and when Eriksson's first defeat will come - the only
certainly is that it will happen - eventually. But one defeat doesn't
make a bad manager and thankfully Eriksson is unlikely to fall by the
wayside or give up as easily as his predecessors.