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 May 7, 2002 | 1040 IST

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Sky's the limit for Eriksson's young lions

One night of fantasy football in Munich has shown Sven-Goran Eriksson's England that anything is possible at the World Cup this summer, even though they have been drawn in the toughest group of the tournament.

Facing cup favourites Argentina, Sweden, whom they have not beaten since 1968, and Nigeria, one the best teams in Africa, England clearly need to hit the ground running.

In fact, they will probably have to beat Argentina under the roof of the Sapporo Dome on June 7 to ensure they finish top of group F and avoid holders France in the second round.

It is a tall order for a team who were ignominiously bundled out at the group stages of their last major tournament, Euro 2000, after losing 3-2 to a mediocre Romania side.

Yet England's miraculous revival under Eriksson is proof that their current side is capable of great things.

They were humiliated by Germany in October 2000 under Kevin Keegan, losing 1-0 in the last match to be played beneath at the old Wembley.

The defeat prompted Keegan to quit and England mustered only a tame 0-0 draw in Finland in their next qualifier.

A subsequent 1-0 defeat to Italy in a Turin friendly, under caretaker boss Peter Taylor, was an improvement and notable for the inspired selection of David Beckham as captain for the first time.

Eriksson's controversial appointment, as the first foreigner to manage England, raised many a jingoistic cackle among the press and public.

The country that had given the world its favourite game was now relying on a bespectacled Swede who had never even heard of some of the players he would later pick to wear an England shirt.

But opinion was about to be turned on its head.


Eriksson's first game in charge, a joyous 3-0 friendly win over Spain in February 2001, seemed to wipe away all the pessimism. The 'Eriksson effect' suddenly began to take hold.

The Swede's willingness to give youth a chance, and his ability to build the confidence of his squad, were repaid by a stunning run of five consecutive qualifying wins that took them from bottom of group nine to the very top.

The greatest moment came last September in Munich when England inflicted a 5-1 defeat on Germany, with Michael Owen scoring a sparkling hat-trick.

The result was the hosts' worst home loss in nearly 70 years and one that made the rest of the footballing world sit up and take notice of Eriksson's gifted 20-somethings.

Qualifying was still a trial of nerves against Greece at Old Trafford, before Beckham curled in a stunning free kick in stoppage time for a 2-2 draw that proved just enough, given Germany's 0-0 draw with Finland.

Once in the Far East, English nerves are due for another jangling.

Opening against Sweden on June 2, against whom they drew 1-1 in a friendly last November, England ought to take all three points from a side that leans heavily on the goalscoring of Henrik Larsson and the support play of Arsenal's Fredrik Ljungberg.


The game against Argentina comes with all the emotional baggage of the 1982 Falklands War, Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal that helped to knock England out of the 1986 World Cup and Beckham's infamous red card in Argentina's penalty shootout victory at France 98.

Though even a draw would be a creditable result, a victory could secure England's passage to the next round as group winners.

By avoiding France, it would also pave their way for a clearer run towards the semifinals.

In Owen, Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, England also have the kind of players who can achieve such a victory -- provided they deliver on the day.

Before the finals, England's preparations were hit by a foot injury to Beckham although he was expected to recover in time for the trip to Japan. But defender Gary Neville, who suffered a similar injury, ruled himself out of contention.

For such a young England side, the 2002 finals represent a learning curve.

A place in the last four would send many home satisfied and optimistic about their chances at Euro 2004 in Portugal and the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

No England team has matched the 1966 World Cup final triumph over West Germany at Wembley.

Bobby Robson's Paul Gascoigne-inspired 1990 side came closest, losing an agonising semifinal penalty shootout against West Germany at Italia 90, and the sense of anticipation surrounding Eriksson's current squad is reminiscent of that which accompanied the 1990 side.

Having exited their last two World Cups and Euro 96 on penalties, England are due for a change in fortune in a major tournament. It may well come next month.

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