Sweden Draw Exposes England
England's inability to beat Sweden for 38 years is a clue why it has won only one soccer title. And that was even longer ago.
If it can't beat one of the middle-range teams in world soccer, how is it going to beat the likes of Brazil and Argentina and win the World Cup for the first time since 1966?
Sven-Goran Eriksson's team twice threw away the lead in last Tuesday's group game against the Swedes in Cologne.
Although the 2-2 tie meant England achieved the target of finishing atop the group standings and avoided playing host Germany in the next round, the performance showed up even more problems.
Traditionally, England is strong at set-piece soccer. Corners and free kicks with David Beckham as the prime provider are among its main sources of goals.
That means England should also be good at defending against corners and long throws. Guess how Sweden scored its goals.
Eriksson was horrified that a team with so many players who are strong in the air — John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Jamie Carragher — should allow Sweden to score from a corner and a long throw-in.
Marcus Allback was allowed a free chance off a corner and his glancing header flew past two defenders on its way into the net via the top of Ashley Cole's head.
That was 1-1. After Steven Gerrard had made it 2-1 five minutes from the end, it looked as if England was about to beat the Swedes for the first time since a 3-1 victory at Wembley in 1968.
As anyone who has seen the previous 11 meetings between the two teams knows, nothing is certain in this rivalry.
Except, perhaps, that something will go right for Sweden.
So Henrik Larsson deflected a long throw-in just inside the far post with a minute to go.
Suddenly, Joe Cole's wonder strike from 30 yards in the first half seemed a distant memory. England not only threw away two points, its credibility as a potential World Cup winner was severely compromised.
While the Swedes ran away in celebration, England's players looked at each one another in a combination of condemnation and disbelief that they could concede such goals.
After all, the Swedes play a lot like the Premier League teams back home, so England should be used to it. Maybe if they pretended they were playing against Bolton Wanderers or Wigan Athletic they would have defended better.
Eriksson says his team will now practise how to defend set pieces so that it doesn't happen again.
But what will happen when his players face the different styles of play from Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic, the other major contenders still alive in this World Cup?
Another failure to beat the Swedes — four losses and eight ties since 1968 — has to serve as a lesson to Eriksson and his players.
Beating Paraguay 1-0 and Trinidad and Tobago 2-0 was evidence his team has other problems. He knows his players struggle to pass the ball to one another consistently and give away possession too easily.
He knows his defenders can get caught by skilful and fast counter-attacks. He knows they fail to open up massed defences. Now he has a set piece problem he didn't think was there.
A knee injury that will sideline Michael Owen for the rest of the World Cup is another headache for Eriksson.
Owen twisted his knee while falling after only a minute of the game.
The Newcastle striker only just returned to action from the broken foot he sustained Dec. 31, and has played very little soccer during 2006. A scan on Wednesday indicated ligament damage and Owen is done in Germany.
Co-striker Wayne Rooney has also just returned from a broken foot, and Owen's absence puts more pressure on the Manchester United star.
Rooney started for the first time since he picked up his injury April 29 and clearly lacked his usual sharpness.
With the problems mounting for Eriksson, Rooney's World Cup performances are set to become even more important and he needs to get back to his best quickly.
Judging by last Tuesday's performance, he could be losing the race, along with his team.