England may be expected to overcome the challenge of Liechtenstein on Saturday,
England may be expected to overcome the challenge of Liechtenstein on Saturday, the second-smallest footballing country in Europe, but as the Republic of Ireland will testify to, under-estimating their opponents would be foolish. TheFA.com investigates.
England's opposition are currently 152nd in FIFA's rankings, but at the same time, the fixture still contains all the elements of a classic FA Cup third round tie, including one rather large banana skin awaiting Sven and his squad of world-stars at the home of FC Vaduz.
In theory, the only thing that should disorientate England's players come Saturday evening is the sound of their national anthem being played twice prior to kick-off, once for the home team (albeit with German words), and then for themselves. But, as everyone in football knows, 'It's a funny old game,' a well-known phrase that could easily have been written about the Liechtenstein football team.
In the nine years that the country has been playing international football, the team has only ever won one competitive match and three friendlies, a statistic that makes you understand why their manager Ralf Loose, once took to the field in a 10-0-0 formation against Hungary, a match that produced one of their most impressive results, a goalless draw.
However, their best ever result came in June 1995 when Jack Charlton brought an experienced Republic of Ireland team to Vaduz for a crucial Euro 96 qualifying match and again, the home team defended as if their lives depended on it, shutting out Niall Quinn and Co. in another goalless stalemate that ended Ireland's hopes of winning the group.
On Saturday, the home side will line up in a 4-5-1 formation chiefly designed to frustrate England in a tactic often seen used by visiting teams in European club competitions, and the longer the scoreline stays blank, the more worried Eriksson and his men will become. Liechtenstein were once on level terms for the opening 29 minutes of a match with Portugal before the floodgates opened and the Portuguese scored eight times.
Loose will probably be judging his team's performance not on the score after 90 minutes, but in terms of how many goals are conceded. To score against David James would almost rank as a victory for the home side seeing as though they have only ever scored two goals in a competitive match once, and that was against Azerbaijan.
Liechtenstein's two games to date in Group Seven have seen them draw 1-1 with F.Y.R. Macedonia, a result comparable with England's 2-2 draw against the same opponents last October, before losing 5-0 away in Turkey last time out, a match where lone striker Mario Frick saw his last-minute penalty saved by Rüstu Reçber.
28-year-old Frick, who currently plays for Ternana in Italy's Serie B, is not only Liechtenstein's joint all-time leading goalscorer, but he is also one of just two full-time professionals in the squad, the other being 21-year-old goalkeeper Peter Jehle, who represents Grasshopper-Club in Zurich. And, any player who found the back of the net on six occasions against the meanest defences in Europe, as Frick did for Hellas-Verona last season in Serie A, will need to be closely watched by England's defenders.
Most matches that this country of 32,000 people, and 1,700 registered footballers, play have both positives and negatives to take from them, as Saturday's no doubt will as well. In June 2000 Liechtenstein played a friendly in Freiburg against Germany and amazingly were on level terms at 2-2 with the then European Champions with 35 minutes to go. That was the positive, the negative being the concession of five goals in the final ten minutes to lose 8-2.
In April 2002 Martin Stocklasa, who along with Frick is the principality's joint leading goalscorer, netted the first and only hat-trick in the national teams history in 38 first-half minutes against Luxembourg as ten-man Liechtenstein led 3-0 at the break. And, despite a penalty miss, they appeared well on course for a rare victory until the home team responded after the interval to draw 3-3.
In September 2000 Loose watched as his side fell behind to Israel after just 16 seconds of a World Cup qualifier, yet still they only lost the match 2-0, with the Israeli's being booed off the pitch at the full-time whistle and Israel coach Richard Moller Nielsen commenting: "Some people don't realise just how difficult games like this can be".
Loose, who used to play in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund, took over the country's coaching reigns five years ago following their worst ever defeat in international football, an 11-1 defeat to Macedonia in qualifying for France 98 and there is no doubt that results have improved under the 40-year-old's guidance.
In qualification for Euro 2000, despite ending the campaign with a goal difference of -37, Liechtenstein nonetheless managed to collect their highest ever points total, four from the ten matches played, including a memorable, and to date, only win in a competitive match, 2-1 in Vaduz against Azerbaijan. And, in attempting to make it to Korea/Japan last summer, that goal differential was reduced to a mere -23!
Just to give England supporters some guide as to what sort of score to expect, these are some of Liechtenstein's most recent competitive results: Romania, 7-0/3-0, Portugal, 8-0/5-0, Slovakia, 4-0/2-0, Hungary, 5-0, Azerbaijan, 4-0, Spain, 5-0/2-0, Austria, 1-0/2-0, Israel, 2-0/3-0 and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 3-0/5-0.
But, even though England will be playing in a ground whose capacity is only 3,548 and whose coach can select from, in reality, just 200 professional footballers, that still does not necessarily mean it will be a walk in the Rheinpark.