This article titled “Hope Powell’s England need cool heads in the heat of World Cup battle” was written by John Ashdown in Augsburg, for The Guardian on Monday 4th July 2011 21.59 UTC
As the dust settled on England’s nerve-frazzling, tournament-saving comeback against New Zealand in Dresden last Friday, the opposition goalkeeper Jenny Bindon, the oldest player at the World Cup, took the time to embrace Hope Powell and offer the England coach some advice: “You guys just need to relax.”
While the tension of tournament football has at times manifested itself on the pitch, off the field the mood in the England camp has been bright and breezy. There have been no team excursions here in Augsburg, a petite city on the Romantische Strasse, the 220-mile section of “Romantic Road” that links up some of Bavaria’s tourist traps, but in Wolfsburg there was a visit to the Volkswagen factory, and in Dresden an impromptu public folk-song singalong with the New Zealand squad on the mayor’s balcony. The stress and intensity of the train-play-travel treadmill has not appeared a problem away from the stadiums – the aim now is to exercise that calmness in the heat of battle.
“I think the expectation is now higher than it has ever been,” said Powell. “The pressure of trying to get out of this group is quite intense and the players may have felt that. After beating USA and Sweden [in friendlies] the expectation was you’re going to win every single game but when points are on the table and getting out of the group or going home is at stake that is quite hard for players to manage. We’ve never really experienced that before – we’ve never been a team that everybody expects to win. I think the fact we have now got our first victory will hopefully allow us to relax a little bit more.”
The surroundings should feel homely enough. FC Augsburg’s Impuls Arena is what might be described as an increasingly typical English ground – a soulless out-of-town concrete bowl, barely distinguishable from the factories and warehouses that encircle it. A dull result in these dull environs would suit England just fine.
Only a defeat and a five-goal swing in goal difference in Mexico’s favour would put England out of the tournament, and despite their two defeats the New Zealanders have thus far appeared a stronger side than their Central American opponents. A draw would mean second place and a quarter-final tie against the winners of Group A – either Germany or France, who face each other on Tuesday. Victory would mean pipping their opponents to top spot.
But with little to choose between an in‑form France and an out-of-sorts Germany, the only likely advantage in topping the group would be psychological. “If we get through then whoever we get in the quarter-finals, it’s going to be very tough,” said Powell. “You think you’d like to avoid Germany, but then you look at the way France have been playing and think: ‘That would be really hard.’ So all we can do is try to win our match, hope that we get into that last eight and then wait to see if it’s Germany or France in the next game.”
England scrapped out a 2-2 with Japan in the 2007 World Cup and both sides have improved since that tournament in China. Japan are now ranked as the best team in the world outside the traditional big three of Germany, Brazil and USA, and Norio Sasaki’s side have, by some distance, had more minutes on the ball than any other team in the tournament. They completed 488 passes against Mexico – in comparison, the average for sides in the Champions League last season was 384.
England hope a high-tempo approach will nullify their opponents’ particular brand of tiki-taka. “You use anything you’ve got, any strength you’ve got to exploit the opposition,” said Powell. “Their strength is keeping the ball. Our strength is our work ethic.”
Powell’s side will certainly have to put in a Stakhonovite shift against the Nadeshiko, but the respect between the sides is mutual. “They’re quick,” said the Japanese striker Homare Sawa, when asked to pick a side with which to compare England. “Maybe Manchester United.” It was meant very much as a compliment, but given the way May’s Champions League final panned out, England will hope that comparison is not too apt.
Probable teams: England (4-3-3) Bardsley; A Scott, F White, Stoney, Unitt; J Scott, Carney, Williams; Clarke, Smith, E White.
Japan (4-4-2) Kaihori; Kinga, Kumagi, Iwashimizu, Sameshima; Ando, Sawa, Sakaguchi, Miyama; Nagasato, Ohno.
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