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Initial omens from Italia 90 look good but closer inspection shows England’s issues

June 24, 2010

David Platt wheels away in celebration after his last-minute winner over Belgium in the last sixteen of Italia 90


After England squeezed past Slovenia yesterday and scraped almost apologetically into the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup, thoughts inevitably turned to tournaments past and England’s roller-coaster rides during the business end.

The one trotted out most frequently by the pundits last night was Italia 90, when England – as they did here – drew their first game 1-1, their second 0-0 and squeaked a 1-0 win in their final game to go through.

Once they got to the latter stages twenty years ago, Bobby Robson’s team bundled their way to the semi-finals where they were outsmarted on penalties by Germany in a tearful, heroic defeat.

Now, plenty of pundits think the omens of Italia 90 mean a similar tub-thumping run to the semis for England this time around, complete with Terry Butcher and Chris Waddle-esque “let’s all ‘ave a disco” dancing. Look a little closer, however, and things start to unravel.

Even though the 2010 scorelines match those in the group stages in 1990, there is one crucial difference from then to now: in 1990, England won the group.

Holland and the Republic Of Ireland’s failure to beat Egypt meant that England’s path to the semi-finals was blocked by distinctly beatable opposition.

Skillful but uninspiring Belgium were taken out thanks to David Platt’s late winner in a disjointed performance and two Gary Lineker penalties accounted for the brilliant but fragile Cameroon.

England, inspired by the fearless Paul Gascoigne, proved equal to the eventual winners in the last four, but that was by far their best performance, half an hour against the Dutch in the group stage aside. However well England played against the Germans, there’s no doubt that their path to the semi-finals in Italy was smoothed substantially by topping the group.

The Republic of Ireland, Runners-up behind England in Group F, had a much trickier proposition once they got to the knockout phase. They had to face a dangerous Romania side – led by the mercurial Georghe Hagi – who they dramatically took out on penalties, then feel the force of the hosts, Italy. Sadly for Big Jack Charlton and Ireland, Roberto Baggio and co swatted away their challenge with ease.

Now, like the Republic of Ireland, England must face in-form and powerful opponents if they are to repeat their semi-final appearance: first Germany, then a likely meeting with Diego Maradona’s Argentina.

On the plus side, England should give Germany a good game. They showed enough against Slovenia to suggest they can actually pass the ball and England teams usually play better football against superior opposition. England rarely relish the tag of favourites and they will go into the match against Joachim Low’s dynamic young side as underdogs and with nothing to lose, and this could work to their advantage.

If they do make it past Germany, they will have to play to their absolute maximum to see off the free-wheeling Argentinians who have the potential to win the tournament, slightly dodgy defence notwithstanding.

Fabio Capello will undoubtedly be delighted his side are still alive in the World Cup, but he will be ruing England’s presence in a quartet of Germany, Argentina and Mexico fighting for a semi-final place, rather than the far palatable combination of South Korea, Ghana and Uruguay.

Perhaps a fairer comparison with Italia 90 is the experience of European champions Holland, who finished third in Group F behind the Republic of Ireland after lots were drawn. They were soundly beaten in a bad tempered game at the San Siro in the last 16 by – yes, you guessed it – Germany.

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