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Showdown at high noon for England: I'll find out who is big; SVEN'S CHALLENGE TO HIS STARS.

Byline: PAUL BYRNE and JEREMY ARMSTRONG in Sapporo, Japan

SVEN Goran Eriksson last night threw down the gauntlet to England's footballers on the eve of the World Cup showdown against Argentina.

The 54-year-old Swede, facing his moment of truth as England coach, said: "In these games you find out who your top players are.

"You find out who is big, and who is not big."

Britain will come to a halt for the lunchtime clash with our fiercest football rivals - a fixture with a 35-year plus history of drama and controversy.

"Cometh the hour, cometh the man" is the message to David Beckham and Co as they step out in Sapporo, Japan, against the South American superstars.

Eriksson will invoke the spirit of the 5-1 win in Germany last September to try to inspire the men who disappointed England with a tame 1-1 draw in their opening group match against Sweden.

Talking hours after skipper Beckham suggested he would "do a Maradona" if it meant beating Argentina, Eriksson spoke of showing pride, dignity and honour.

"I don't think England have to win at all costs," he said.

"The pressure is on of course, we are in the World Cup. Hopefully we will play for 90 minutes this time, not just in the first half as against Sweden.

"I know many of the Argentina players very well and they deserve to be one of the favourites here. They have some great skills. But I'm going out to win."

Daily Mirror readers voted seven-to-one yesterday that Beckham should not cheat to win the game.

Eriksson - a trophy winner at club level in Sweden, Portugal and Italy - admits divine intervention will come in handy at the Sapporo Dome, with its UFO-style roof and movable pitch.

"We must have the spirit up in the stars if we are to do well," he said.

"I like the stadium here. Of course it is strange playing indoors but I think it is beautiful. This is the future of football."

A draw could be enough to see England through to the last 16 provided they beat Nigeria in their final group match next Wednesday. Sweden play the Africans this morning, then Argentina next week.

England go into battle today with eight-to-one superiority inside the ground.

An 8,000-strong army of fans will swamp a 1,000 contingent from an Argentina mired in financial chaos. The rest of the 42,500-seater, pounds 316m arena will be packed with secret weapons - Japanese fans, faces painted in Union flag colours and dressed in Three Lions shirts, screaming their support for their idols "Davido Beckham" and "Michael Oweno".

However, Buenos Aires marketing executive Patrice Perez, 35, spelled out how victory could lift his country.

"I am one of the few who could afford to come," he said. "Football means everything to our nation. This game can help our people smile again."

England fans were last night turning the famous Sapporo beer garden into a sea of red, white and blue tops, scarves and flags.

University admin worker Alan Lee, 42, of the fans' group 4england, said: "We are here supporting the team for everyone back home.

"The fans have been great and there has been a tremendous atmosphere. I still think we can do it."

Singer Joss Worthington, 23, from Halifax, said: "There are six of us here and although two of us are still looking for tickets, we cannot wait to get in there. It will be one hell of a match."

Beer garden director Kenji Ijima was struggling to cope with the demands of thirsty supporters

His most popular deal is a King Viking barbecue with as much beer as you can drink for 100minutes - price about pounds 18, cheap by Japanese standards.

He joked: "The Japanese struggle to get through three jugs in 100 minutes, but the English are drinking four each."

The tournament's British ticket distributors Byrom are already under fire over the empty seats at many matches.

And despite earlier reports of a Sapporo sellout today, Japanese TVstations said last night that fans could still buy up to four tickets each by phone and six on the internet.

Seven thousand police will be on duty for the match - kick off 8.30pm local time - armed with water cannon which they carry on their backs and Spiderman "net-guns".

CAPTION(S):

CRUNCH: Eriksson at press call yesterday; OUR HOPES ON THEIR SHOULDERS: Michael Owen and skipper David Beckham flying the flag in Japan yesterday Picture: BRADLEY ORMESHER
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 7, 2002
Words:749
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