WORLD CUP ALMANAC: Day 20
In which we continue to look at the delicious spread of quarter finals which await this weekend....
ENGLAND v PORTUGAL
Big Phil Scolari. Not only the coach of Portugal and former World Cup winner with Brazil, but also a moustachioed stick with which to beat Sven Goran Eriksson.
For every wan look Sven delivers from his ensconcement in the dug out toward his listless team, there is a fist-clenching, charismatic gesture of inspriration from Big Phil for the English press to observe sniffily. For every report of a stultifying half-time team talk from Sven sucking the zest from his players, there is another documentation of Big Phil's motivational powers. For every mention of Sven's toleration of David Beckham's decline, there is a reference to Big Phil's reinvigoration of Luis Figo.
If Eriksson is motivated by such base things as the pleasure of raising two fingers to detractors, then he must be fiercely determined to finally defeat his old nemesis, the man who didn't want his job, this Saturday.
In the Swede's favour, so far this tournament has often forgiven the shoddiest of early form. France's resurrection and Brazil's gathering momentum prove that the achievement of results always buys time for a talented squad to find its feet.
Whether England's several real match-winners can drag them through the fog of their complete tactical funk is the critical factor for the meeting with Portugal. The botch job which was the squad selection (well, the Walcott mystery mainly) and the injury to Michael Owen mean that, and wasn't it ever thus, much of Albion's hopes rest with the full recovery of Wayne Rooney.
The good news for England is that the Manchester United striker looked to be heading towards his best in the latter stages of the victory over Ecuador, and the completion of 90 minutes was a satisfying day's work for the young man who bears such huge expectations with insouciance.
Additionally, the form of Steven Gerrard (a man coming up to a year of constant football now) is consistent with the regular claims made for his pre-eminence amongst global midfielders, and Joe Cole's strike against Sweden was one of the moments of the tournament so far.
But England have not looked much closer to dispensing with the awful disjointedness which has plagued them this tournament so far. David Beckham 'saved' his country with a trademark dead-ball in the round of 16, but the captain's almost total invisibility and lack of penetration has contributed greatly to his team's bluntness. The glaring case for Aaron Lennon's inclusion must not be ignored much longer, if England are to triumph in their first real test so far.
It's a call that Scolari would probably not hesitate to make. His own selection decisions have been made easier by the suspensions inflicted by the debacle in Nuremburg last Sunday. The loss of Deco and Costinha will see Figo moved inside and, probably, Petit brought into midfield.
If Cristiano Ronaldo recovers from the injury sustained against Holland, the renewal of his epic battle with Ashley Cole from the corresponding fixture in the last European Championships will be interesting, but the bipp-topping combatants are the two men on the sideline. Scolari's team have demonstrated infinitely more cohesion in the matches so far but still look lightweight up front. Eriksson's have stuttered but retain a deadlier knockout punch.
This, finally, could be the time when the Swede comes off the ropes fighting.
BRAZIL v FRANCE
Not really lacking in context either, is this one. Only a handful of combatants remain from the day in Paris in 1998 when a French football fulfilled itself and Brazilian football looked its saddest.
But the fact that those few include the scorer of a crucial first half brace, Zinedine Zidane, and the man whose mysterious troubles on the morning of the game saw his golden moment turn to dust, Ronaldo, gives this game huge resonance.
The two central characters that day have had a strangely symmetrical World Cup. In the opening matches Zidane and Ronaldo looked like the ravages of time and lack of fitness had rendered their once world-beating talents impotent. Indeed, in the case of Zidane, France's win over Togo which ensured their progression from their weak group, achieved in Zizou's absence, seemed to suggest that les Bleus were better off without their former talisman.
But both returned to sublime heights in the round of 16, doing what they both do best: in Ronaldo's case, deadly finishing after mesmeric lead-up play; for Zidane, the reappearance of his unmistakeable guile and balance.
France now look a decent bet. A solid back four with Makalele and Vieira in front of them, and the sprightly Ribery, the sleek Malouda and, of course, Thierry Henry assisting Zidance ahead of that, they have a good shape about them all of a sudden.
As we saw on Tuesday, Brazil profit from a team playing a high line against them (Ghana's bewildering decision to do so was a textbook case of how not to play against the Brazilians). The French will happily sit in and see if Brazil can break them down. No better men, of course, but more is needed from a hitherto off the boil Ronaldinho, assisting the excellent Juninho and Kaka, if the iron wall of Thuram, Gallas, Sagnol, Abidal and Makalele is to be breached.
Given that France have plenty to trouble their opponents with up front, their victory over Spain could even end up being a dress rehearsal for this one: come and have a go if you think you're talented enough. But that is a dangerous game to play against Brazil, who only need a sniff of goal from any sort of range to notch a winner. And if little Ronnie steps out of the ample shadow of his near-namesake at last, revenge for '98 might be complete.