The news that Brazil’s excellent holding midfielder, Edmilson, is out through injury, constitutes the second major blow to the tournament. Wayne Rooney – not entirely out yet, but definitely hampered in making any sort of impact in Germany, was the first.
There are two ways of looking at these things. You can either celebrate the fact that Brazil, the most talented team on show, aren’t going to be as difficult to get past as they might have been, meaning that your own team, whoever they are, will have an easier time of it. Or, you can feel disappointment at losing the prospect of seeing the best team playing at their best.
I take the second position. Neither of Edmilson’s understudies – Mineiro and Arsenal’s Gilberto Silva – are particularly mouth-watering.
But there’s more to it from England’s perspective. England reserve their best performances for their fiercest opponents.
The way I see it, before Erickson, England used to have three kinds of opponents in football. There were the “minnows”, teams like Cyprus, Luxembourg, Turkey as were. Faced with such opposition, England would be flat-track bullies, and would usually score more than three goals. Then there were what you might regard as the moderate sides, like Sweden, Denmark, Austria. England would often beat these teams, but not by any great distance and with a great deal of huffing and puffing. Finally, there were the “class” sides, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy. Against these teams, England would lose – gallantly, all guns blazing, but lose. All that has changed.
Against what minnows remain, England now try to get a victory with the least possible effort. As we saw in the defeat to Northern Ireland, this can backfire. It’s not lack of enthusiasm for the cause. England have top players across the whole of the team now, who have long and competitive seasons. They pace themselves. Every other class of athlete understands this, but football fans, on the whole, don’t. Against decent, but not top, sides, England will win, but without playing that elusive superb football that we’ve never really seen but Erickson stands charged of not producing. Against the top sides, England now really produce, and as we have seen recently, win.
So what might it mean for England to come up against a top side, but one weakened significantly by injury?
I worry. I think it takes the whole challenge of facing the very best at their very best to bring out the best in England’s players. This team has a confidence in its own ability that has been lacking in all its predecessors save the great 1970 side. That confidence means that they’ll stand up to Brazil, this time. But if they feel that Brazil is within their competence to too great a degree, will they misjudge the situation and play at too low a level?
If they get it right, I think they’ll win – Brazil are astonishingly good in attack, and Sunderland in defence. And we have one of the great defences in football. We’ll win – if, if.