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Complacency England's main foe

England's draw for the World Cup finals was met with joy by most of the print media, indeed The Sun's front page splash read 'Three Lions On A Cert'.

While the hand dealt to Sven Goran Eriksson's men could have been far crueler, to claim the passage to the knockout stages is a mere formality is folly.

Everyone is aware of the 'bogey' nature of the group decider against Sweden. England would not want to go into that game needing a victory to ensure progress.

The underlying positive is that England do not face a nation which qualified in style. Paraguay took the fourth and final place in the Conmebol region, Trinidad also finished fourth in Concacaf and had to win a play-off against Bahrain - only the fifth best nation in Asia. Also, Sweden failed to win a group topped by Croatia and had to rely on being one of the best runners-up.

Much may hinge on the opening group game against the South Americans. Paraguay travel to Germany with a poor away record over the long qualification programme. In fact, 20 of their 28 points were picked up on home turf in Asuncion. And their long held reputation as an obdurate side, tight at the back, has been lost.

When the World Cup was held in France in 1998, Paraguay reached the knockout stages by finishing second in a group won by Nigeria but which also featured European nations Spain and Bulgaria. They went out to eventual champions France in the next round, losing 1-0 after extra-time, but conceded only one goal in the regular 90 minutes of their four finals matches.

They reached the same stage in Korea/Japan 2002, but the defence let in an average of two goals per game in the group phase. Their defensive record in qualifying for Germany mirrors that of 2002 and it may indicate a similarly porous back line for the tournament.

Paraguay's battle to reach the finals was far from straight-forward. They were inconsistent throughout, winning only one game in seven in 2004, and current coach Anibal Ruiz is their third since qualifying began. Even though the team had reached the World Cup, they were booed off the pitch after losing their last qualifier, 1-0 at home to Colombia.

Paraguay boast Bayern Munich hotshot Roque Santa Cruz as their star player. In addition, Nelson Haedo Valdez will also be playing on 'home' soil. The Werder Bremen forward is a skillful player who has an eye for goal. He was prominent in Bremen's Champions League thrashing of Panathinaikos last week, scoring twice.

Ruiz reserved special praise for the performances of Palmeiras defender Carlos Gamarra and emerging talent Julio Dos Santos - who has agreed to join Bayern from Cerro Porteno for around £1.3million in January.

Eriksson's men played Paraguay as recently as April 2002, en route to the last finals, recording a 4-0 victory at Anfield. Michael Owen, Danny Murphy, Darius Vassell and an own goal by Celso Ayala did the damage.

The two nations have met on only one other occasion, in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when England ran out 3-0 winners in the first knockout round. A Gary Lineker double and another from Peter Beardsley earned the now infamous meeting with Diego Maradona's Argentina.

While the hand dealt to Sven Goran Eriksson's men could have been far crueler, to claim the passage to the knockout stages is a mere formality is folly.

Ruiz will not take his side to Frankfurt on June 10 ready to roll over. It's a game which will not only map out the group, but it may also give an indication to England's passage to the quarter-finals. With Germany hot favourites to top Group A, Eriksson will be eager to do the same and avoid an immediate test against the hosts.

If Paraguay manage to stop England from playing, as is their usual style, and take something from the game then England's route into the latter stages begins to look tricky.

Whereas Paraguay will be something of an unknown quantity, many of Trinidad & Tobago's stars ply their trade in the lower divisions of the English game and in Scotland.

Currently playing in the United Kingdom are: Shaka Hislop (West Ham United), Clayton Ince (Coventry City), Kelvin Jack (Dundee); Dennis Lawrence (Wrexham), Marvin Andrews (Rangers), Brent Sancho (Gillingham), Ian Cox (Gillingham); Christopher Birchall (Port Vale), Carlos Edwards (Luton Town), Russell Latapy (Falkirk); Jason Scotland (St. Johnstone), Stern John (Derby County), Kenwyne Jones (Southampton).

In addition to that role call, the rest of the squad is dispersed around the lesser leagues of the globe, including the USA's MLS, the J-League in Japan and also the newly formed A-League of Australia.

Their most famous player is without doubt Dwight Yorke, who won the treble with Manchester United in 1999. The 34-year-old has scored five goals in ten games as skipper of Sydney, who lie second in the league behind Adelaide United.

Trinidad & Tobago, coached by Dutchman Leo Beenhakker, are totally untried at this level and will meet England for the first time.While the supporters may provide one of the best spectacles the team may find it hard to compete.

The fact that so many of their players are based in England will provide added spice. If England do not win the game in Nuremberg on June 15 they will struggle to make it through the group.

Sweden provide opposition which England know only too well. It will be 38 years since England last beat their Scandinavian counterparts when they meet in Cologne on June 20. And they have never got the better of Sweden in a competitive international. Some would say they are due a victory, others would say it doesn't bode well.

Of course, the added ingredient is Eriksson up against his homeland for the second World Cup in succession. In Saitama the two teams drew 1-1, with Niclas Alexandersson levelling Sol Campbell's opener.

Sweden travel to Germany with many household names. Striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic's stock continues to rise at Juventus, while Premiership stars Olof Mellberg (Aston Villa) and Fredrik Ljungberg (Arsenal) will also be part of the squad.

And Erik Edman (Stade Rennes), Teddy Lucic (BK Hacken), Mikael Nilsson (Panathinaïkos), Alexandersson (IFK Gothenburg), Tobias Linderoth (FC Copenhagen), Marcus Allback (FC Copenhagen), Mattias Jonson (Djurgarden), Henrik Larsson (Barcelona) and Anders Svensson (Elfsborg) are well known to fans in England.

Whereas in the past Sweden have struggled for goals they were they most potent strikeforce in European qualifying, averaging three goals a game. Ibrahimovic bagged eight goals - only Pauleta of Portugal and the Czech Republic's Jan Koller scored more.

Defensively they remain strong, conceding only four goals over their ten preliminary games.

The ideal scenario is that both England and Sweden go into the final group match on maximum points. Any other permutation could leave Sven's men open to the banana skin of losing to Sweden and being overtaken by Paraguay.

Of course, it's difficult to predict what will happen in the games involving the other three nations. And a spirited Trinidad side will be desperate to be more than also-rans.

It's unthinkable that an England side with so much promise and talent would fail to make it through the group, but with each rival having a player towards the top of the qualification scoring charts - Ibrahimovic, John and Jose Cardozo of Paraguay - there is a threat.

England will this week confirm their friendly opponents in preparation for the finals, and are sure to secure games against nations from the same regions. So expect the visit of a South American nation (possibly Uruguay), a Scandinavian side (Norway) and also a side such as Jamaica.

With an extra week's preparation at his disposal for this tournament, Eriksson knows there will be few excuses for failing to impress at the World Cup. While the draw is not exactly a walk in the park, there is enough to suggest England will expect to top the group and reach at least the quarter-finals - where Argentina or the Czech Republic are likely to lie in wait.

If results go as expected, England would be up against Brazil in the semi-final before arriving for the final in Berlin on July 9.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.