If I were to sum up England’s World Cup opener in one sentence, I would have to say that Sven-Goran Eriksson’s fancied team began with a bang but ended in a whimper.
A goal up within three minutes and up against a very nervous outfit which played the early minutes like novices, England should have beaten Paraguay by a more convincing margin than 1-0. The Beckhams, Lampards and Gerrards toyed with their opponents in the opening 15 minutes and a second goal looked imminent as Paraguay conceded free-kicks and corners too often.
Well, not only did goal No. 2 never materialise, England got so conscious of full points towards the end, they were left defending with 10 men at times.
There were two important reasons why England fizzled out after an encouraging start. First and foremost, they felt Rooney’s absence with every passing minute. The giraffe-like Peter Crouch may be six-foot-seven-inch tall, but he doesn’t have the cutting edge of Rooney. I’m not blaming Eriksson, for he doesn’t have too many choices. But the bottomline is, the sooner Rooney is match-fit, the better it will be for England.
The other crucial factor was the ground, which was soggy and slippery. Underfoot conditions were so treacherous that Eriksson didn’t take a chance and took off Owen early in the second half. Trapping the ball wasn’t an easy proposition and there was risk of injury. It affected both teams and reflected in the pedestrian soccer on display.
England had quite a few shots on goal, with Lampard himself taking three cracks. But all those were aimed straight at the goalie. Paraguay had to replace their No. 1 ’keeper but England still couldn’t capitalise. That’s not a happy reflection of the striking potential of one of the serious contenders.
These Paraguayans, mind you, are no pushovers. They are playing their third straight finals, having progressed to the second round both in France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002. They also have in their ranks some very talented and experienced players like Gamarra, Valdez, Santacruz. Yet, they took quite long to shed off the tension and get into some kind of a groove.
England’s matchwinner will be recorded as an own goal by Gamarra, but what the record books won’t say is Beckham’s contribution. The master of free-kicks not only bent the ball like only he can, it was dipping when Gamarra ' ironically Paraguay’s only player with over 100 international caps ' met the ball and back-headed it into the goal. I would give Beckham more credit than criticise the defender.
In the end, though, Paraguay were a trifle unlucky. Nelson Valdez, their most enterprising forward, should have scored twice. Both times, he couldn’t connect the volley properly.
Paraguay were a bit let down by their Bayern Munich striker Roque Santa Cruz. He looked somewhat cautious, obviously weighed down by a knee injury he had recently. If he had managed to give Valdez some support, England may have been forced to leave the ground with a solitary point.