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   June 17, 2002 | 1300 IST


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World Cup draw smiled on England

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Trevor Huggins

As England prepare for their World Cup quarter-final on Friday, they can look back on last December's draw and realise just how lucky they were to be chosen for the Group of Death.

Where holders France and highly rated Portugal believed they simply had to turn up against unheralded opponents to breeze into the second round, England spent six months living with the fear of elimination.

Whether they played well or played badly -- and England did both in their group matches against Sweden, Argentina and Nigeria -- Sven-Goran Eriksson's men knew each game would be like a final, and that they would need to fight for every one of their allotted 270 minutes.

David Beckham during training.In football, as in all sports, there is little in terms of raw technique and skill to separate the very best exponents -- but a huge amount in terms of mental preparation.

And England were battle-ready, daggers between their teeth, before they even kicked a ball at these finals.


In particular, the four defenders knew they faced the hardest series of games -- including a potential second-round clash with France -- of their entire footballing careers.

Under Kevin Keegan, England's defence proved their undoing at Euro 2000, where a 2-0 lead was squandered in their opening defeat to Portugal and a late penalty conceded in the 3-2 loss to Romania that sent them home early.

Eriksson's rearguard of Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand and Euro 2000 survivor Sol Campbell had months to think about keeping it tight on the world stage, and proving they could work as a unit.

Significantly, the only costly mistake so far has been from latecomer Danny Mills, who took the place of injured Gary Neville in the final weeks before leaving home.

His wayward clearance in the 59th minute of their opening game against the Swedes was drilled home by Niclas Alexandersson, prompting the Leeds United rightback to admit afterwards:

"It goes to show that in international football, you make one mistake and you get punished."


England have not conceded a goal since and no team has a better defensive record at the 2002 finals. Better still, both Campbell and Ferdinand have scored their first goals for their country.

Fully primed by their winner-takes-all duels at the group stage, England showed no mercy in the second round, where they gunned down a highly respected Denmark in under 45 minutes.

Michael Owen broke his 2002 World Cup duck in the 3-0 romp, David Beckham, still not at 100 percent after breaking his foot in April, gave his best performance yet at the finals and central midfielder Nicky Butt grew at least a foot taller.

If they beat Belgium as expected on Monday, Brazil may well look back on famous past wins over England, cast an eye over a current team which includes the likes of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos, and feel that a place in the semi-finals is there for the taking.

They could not be more wrong.

France and Portugal have paid the ultimate price for the sin of pride, while Italy already had their credit card out when Alessandro Del Piero nodded in an 85th minute equaliser against Mexico, and Croatia obligingly lost to Ecuador.

By contrast, England will know better than any other team in the last eight that every World Cup match is actually a final, even if it is not being played in Yokohama on June 30.

In a tournament that may well be remembered for its upsets, the one team from the Group of Death that are still alive in the competition could well have cause to thank the draw.

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