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The Azeri omens

Following Saturday's relatively simple 2-0 victory over lacklustre Wales, Sven Goran Eriksson's England are expected to continue their cruise through World Cup qualification in Azerbaijan on Wednesday.

The Azeri are ranked 107 places lower than England in FIFA's official standings and the nation's football association (AFFA) - founded as recently as 1992 - has a pool of only 400 professional players to choose from.

The statistics are stacked in England's favour but Azerbaijan's Brazilian boss Carlos Alberto Torres will be hoping that the curse of his countrymen will strike his opposite number as it has in the past.

Eriksson has only lost three competitive games during his four-year tenure and two of those matches have held something of a Brazilian hoodoo.

England lost their World Cup 2002 quarter-final to a freak goal from Brazil's Ronaldinho and at Euro 2004 their quarter-final demise against Portugal was masterminded by Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Alberto Torres will be hoping the jinx strikes again in the Azerbaijan capital Baku and the former Brazil international certainly knows a thing or two about wrecking England's World Cup dreams.

The Rio de Janeiro-born star was the influencial captain of Brazil when Jairzinho emerged from the right of our crackling TV screens to lash home Pele's lay-off at the 1970 World Cup, as Brazil beat England 1-0 en route to lifting the Jules Rimet trophy.

The 60-year-old is now charged with the task of plotting England's demise with a group of players that fall way short of the skill and ability of that famous Brazil team of the 70s.

But the former skipper, who signed a one-year rolling contract in February, is undaunted and realistic about the task ahead of him.

'I want to share my knowledge and experience with Azerbaijan but it's going to take some time to get results,' he said on replacing Asker Abdullayev.

The former Nigeria and Oman boss still adopts the same short, quick passing style that brought him success as a club manager in Brazil, but Torres may have to call on the tactical nous of Azerbaijan's very own Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov to plot the visitors' downfall.

Instead the Azeri chief will have to rely on the team work that earned home draws against Wales and Northern Ireland and the guile of star player Gurban Gurbanov.

The Neftchi Baku striker is Azerbaijan's all-time leading scorer with 12 goals and was voted as the nation's Player of the Year at the end of 2003, due to his international form.

Gurbanov has amassed 57 international caps and has played in all three of Azerbaijan's qualifiers, despite failing to find the net.

Although Azerbaijan can also call on the talents of the odd player from the Turkish Telsim One Liga they could never be be described as a star studded squad (not by any stretch of the imagination) and their best hope for victory may well lie in mysticism.

However, in the battle of the omens England can draw on their own World Cup pedigree.

Wednesday's venue, the Tofik Bakhramov Stadium, is named after the 'Russian' linesman who deemed Geoff Hurst's disputed strike had crossed the line in England's 4-2 World Cup final triumph over West Germany in 1966.

Hat-trick hero Hurst will unveil a statue to the Azeri official outside the stadium before the midweek clash, but England will be hoping they don't need any help from the officials to see off the minnows.

Instead, Eriksson's biggest headache will be deciding whether to stick with the three pronged attack that served him so well against Wales, or switch to a 4-4-2.

Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe is expected to be axed from the trio, with Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney retaining their places, if the Swede reverts back to his favoured formation.

Eriksson must then decide if attack-minded winger Shaun Wright-Phillips or the more defensive Owen Hargreaves will come in to replace injured/suspended skipper David Beckham.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.