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May 24, 2006

Group B Tactics Board

England | Paraguay | Trinidad & Tobago | Sweden
Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

It may be that the entire complexion of Group B changed the moment England striker Wayne Rooney broke his foot on April 29th.

The wonder kid who many believed would take the World Cup by storm was the trump card for England boss Sven Goran Eriksson and now the notoriously stubborn Swede has to prove he has something more inventive up his sleeve in the absence of the jewel in his crown.

Many in England have suggested for years that Eriksson's insistence on employing a 4-4-2 formation means he is not getting the best out of the talent at his disposal and the fact that he treats friendly internationals with distain means he has had little or no time to formulate a system in time for this World Cup effort.

In keeper Paul Robinson, Eriksson knows he has a reliable last line of defence and that is one improvement in his side from Euro 2004, where David James was exposed at crucial moments.

John Terry's form at the heart of the defence will also be a key, but if there is to be a flaw in the back line, it comes in the shape of Arsenal full-back Ashley Cole, who has barely played a game in 2006.

Michael Owen will not be fully fit after missing most of the season with a broken foot and it may be that Eriksson is forced into a rethink, fielding a 4-1-4-1 formation that would get the best out of his gifted midfield quartet of Joe Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham. Tottenham's Michael Carrick may be the best suited for the holding midfield role, though Eriksson will change his philosophy with real reluctance.

'Of course you have to look at a plan B and that has always been there for us,' states Eriksson. 'We all wanted Wayne Rooney to be in the World Cup, but if that cannot happen then you have to be realistic and look at something else. England have great players who will be able to make up for this setback.'

Until the Rooney nightmare struck, Sweden coach Lars Lagerback was backing England to emerge as genuine contenders to lift the World Cup, but he may now view the top spot in Group B to be within his side's grasp. Their woeful performance in a friendly against Dublin in March did little to build confidence, yet Lagerback remains convinced he has room for optimism.

The key role in his side may be given to outgoing Barcelona hit-man Henrik Larsson or Arsenal's Freddie Ljungberg. Likely to employ a 4-4-1-1 formation, it is the man who will play behind the towering Zlatan Ibrahimovic that may hold the key to the Swede's hopes in Germany.

'You could say we play a 4-4-2, but we like to have a player working just off Ibrahimovic,' states Lagerback. 'We appreciate the significance of Zlatan to our plans, but I like to look at Sweden as a team rather than a group of star performers. We don't have too many egos in this squad and that helps us.'

Lagerback sums up Group B in these simple terms. 'My view of this draw is simple. England are the favourites and my hope is when we play them in our final game of the group, it is merely to decide who will finish first and second. If we get to that game needing to win to survive, it may be too much for us.'

While Lagerback is always understated, the star turn in Group B outsiders, Trinidad and Tobago, is much more bullish. According to 'Soca Warriors' striker Dwight Yorke, his team are determined to ensure their World Cup debut is much more than a damage limitation exercise as he offers this stout defence of their chances.

'I know people will expect us to get beaten in every game, but this is not the way we look at the World Cup,' states the striker who has been preparing for the finals by training with his former club, Manchester United. 'The England game is the one we are all looking forward to, but I believe we can do some damage in this group. You should not underestimate this team.'

Yorke's positive words are well composed, yet the reality may a little different for a side being guided by experienced Dutch coach, Leo Beenhakker. After naming a squad comprising of a host of players plying their trade in the lower reaches of English league football, it is hard to see how they will be able to rattle the cages of their Group B opponents.

Expect to see Stern John taking up the role of lead striker in a 4-5-1 formation that features a floating Yorke bursting from the midfield whenever possible. It is also a defensive minded line-up that gives T&T the chance to carve out what would be a famous first point in a World Cup. If they manage to keep a clean sheet in any of their games, expect plenty of parties on the beaches of the Caribbean.

Paraguay's chief threat in this World Cup is likely to come from set-plays, where they have profited in recent internationals. Under the guidance of 2005 South American Coach of the Year coach Anibal Ruiz, their defence minded 4-4-2 formation is set in stone and their chief concern in the run-up to the finals has been the race to fitness for key forward, Roque Santa Cruz.

Lacking a touch of youth in his squad, Uruguayan-born Ruiz believes his side are in a straight head to head with Sweden for the runners-up place in Group B and qualification for the second round. 'We are here to prove ourselves and I'm delighted to be playing England in the first match,' states Ruiz. 'They are the best and the only way to make your mark is to do something against the best. Let's see what happens. We are confident.'

Very much a side who try to grind down their opponents rather than blind them with brilliance, Paraguay are likely to be the wild card in Group B. A defensive mindset may dominate their thoughts, but they are tough to break down and without Rooney's mastery, England may struggle to get off to the flying start they expect.

If that opening game in Frankfurt finishes in a stalemate, anything could happen in Group B.


MAN TO WATCH: Michael Owen

The loss of Wayne Rooney means England's hopes may be dependent on Michael Owen's fitness and he should arrive in Germany fresh and ready for the challenge after sitting out most of the 2005/6 campaign with his own version of metatarsal hell.

A SAFE BET: You may get decent odds on England's Frank Lampard finishing as Group B's top scorer.

THE DARK HORSE: Paraguay are something of an unknown quantity and getting England in the first game gives them the chance to make an instant impact.

COACHES CORNER: Eriksson's inflexibility will be exposed if he refuses to adapt to the absence of Rooney. That may allow his experienced opponents to take advantage.

VERDICT: Sweden and Paraguay are never easy to break down and unless England find the right balance in their line-up, this Group B challenge may not be as easy for them as many expect. Expect a three way fight for the top two spots, with Trinidad and Tobago as the whipping boys.