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The end of the world

It came in adversity, not through planning or training, but England finally located their inner strength. Reduced to 10 men, their true spirit emerged, coursing through the bravest of performances for the final hour in Gelsenkirchen.

Heroes abounded: the redoubtable central defensive partnership of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand; the resolute Gary Neville, making light of a three-week lay-off with trademark determination; the substitutes Peter Crouch and Aaron Lennon, presenting very different challenges to the Portugal defence, often in isolation because they were a man short. And, above all, Owen Hargreaves who, whatever the limitations of his passing, displayed a Stakhanovite work ethic and phenomenal stamina.

Such is the eternal paradox of England; unimpressive while winning, and exiting with heads held high. Hard luck stories are a constant of their departures from major tournaments; the lengthy list of the unfortunate penalty-takers is longer still. The phrase 'if only' can be invoked again; however, for all their resilience with 10 men, the case for England meriting a place among the four finest sides in the World Cup is, at best, tenuous.

There is an obvious temptation to castigate Wayne Rooney, whose momentary explosion would have ruled him out of the final even had England been present there. His frustration, a product of his impotence in an unfamiliar role, resulted in the stamp on Ricardo Carvalho. Rooney, subject of a bitter tug of war between club and country before the tournament, has an unfortunate habit of not finishing matches against Portugal.

Equally obvious will be the calls for Steve McClaren to reinstate the traditionally British system of 4-4-2 when the England team reconvenes, even without the injured Michael Owen and the suspended Rooney. But the formation itself is not the problem as much as the way it is implemented; the success or otherwise of a lone striker is determined by how much support he receives; while England had 11 men, reinforcements for Rooney, particularly from the flanks, were negligible. Directions to attack were notable by their absence.

Instead, a lonely Rooney erupted. There may be a campaign by Little Englanders to paint the Portuguese, particularly Cristiano Ronaldo, as the villains of the piece. They should be ignored; with a correct dismissal, neither opponents nor referee should make a convenient scapegoat.

Neville, it is presumed, will not join in such calls. The most conspicuously honest member of the England camp spoke, on several occasions, of his motto for the World Cup: no excuses. It should be adopted by his team-mates in their post-mortems because, if the unquenchable spirit displayed in Gelsenkirchen were enough in itself, then Trinidad & Tobago would be crowned world champions.

Throughout the World Cup, following each of four games featuring an surfeit of long balls, incoherent attacking and certain garlanded players failing to justify lofty reputations, the continual insistence from the England camp that a better performance would follow. And yet, even their excellence was defensive, borne of bloody-minded determination, not technical superiority or attacking flair. After five matches, England will leave Germany without a display that showcased their undeniable talent and considerable individual accomplishments.

And for that, Sven-Goran Eriksson must be faulted. In a four-year duel at international football's top table, the scoreline now stands 'Big Phil 3, Sven 0': even while Portugal were unable to force a winner against the 10 remaining Englishmen, Luiz Felipe Scolari completed a hat-trick of tactical victories. His deployment of wingers kept England's full-backs from venturing forward and ensured the spare man was either Hargreaves or one of the central defenders.

The World Cup winner has returned to the semi-finals despite the lack of a lack of a cutting edge; indeed Pauleta turned in a display of such spectacular anonymity that many would struggle to recognise him in a one-man identity parade. The Brazilian lacks quality strikers; the Swede discarded virtually all of his forwards.

Initially, there was the lack of ambition in Gelsenkirchen. Then followed the lack of numbers, which only exacerbated the shortage of strikers. But for Ricardo's magnificent penalty saves, England could have ended the World Cup with only the marginalised rookie Theo Walcott and the willing Crouch as available strikers. It is not a new point, but it remains pertinent: Eriksson surely selected the wrong Jermain(e) from White Hart Lane.

That is not to suggest that the selection of Jermain Defoe would, in itself, have made David Beckham and the trophy better acquainted. But it remains a significant misjudgment, and one of many.

At the time of Eriksson's appointment in 2001, it seemed the culmination of a decade's continental education of England. It was hoped it would result in a superior brand of football, blending the touch and comfort in possession shown by, say, Argentina with the attacking instincts and formidable determination that comes naturally to the ilk of Terry and Gerrard.

Instead, England regressed. Their style of play, at times, was an unpleasant throwback. Beneficiaries of a particularly favourable draw and with longer to prepare, they were fewer causes for optimism in their efforts than in 2002 or 2004. Michael Owen's cruel injury disrupted England's plans but vice-captain and captain, appointed for ambassadorial rather than footballing reasons, never resembled the players of 2001.

Meanwhile, Frank Lampard's name can be placed alongside that of Paul Scholes among the list of gifted players who have under-performed under Eriksson; even Steven Gerrard's magnificent best eluded him. As a partnership, they never gelled. As a unit, the midfield, forever tinkered with, never ranked among the tournament's best.

Then there is the question of a starstruck manager's selection policy. Aaron Lennon, the secret weapon who appeared so reclusive England seemed to be hiding him for the duration of the tournament, provided a cameo of his capabilities against Portugal, but only after Beckham limped off.

And with four matches remaining, the leading contender for the Manager of the World Cup award is equipped not with 30 years' experience, but courage and charisma; the novice Jurgen Klinsmann has restored the feelgood factor to German football. In contrast, England appeared incapable of winning the World Cup under Eriksson, and not because of his nationality.

It is, nonetheless, worth remembering that 2006 did represent the best chance: a generation of hugely accomplished players, some among the world's best, at or near their peak. To form that judgment, however, you have to watch Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham or Chelsea.

In contrast, England were the poorest of the eight quarter-finalists in Germany. Reaching the last eight cannot be described as disastrous.

But by the criteria for his appointment, the size of his salary and the quality of the players at his disposal, Sven-Goran Eriksson failed as England manager.

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