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ANALYSIS American success no surprise to Arena

Thursday 6th June 2002

by Etienne Charpentier in Korea

If you talk to USA coach Bruce Arena about World Cup shocks, he'll refer you to Senegal. For while Arena hailed Wednesday's 3-2 victory over Portugal as their "biggest win in the modern era", the only people not shocked by the outcome were the Americans themselves.

"We had prepared for this game since December," Arena said after the match in Suwon's new World Cup stadium.

"I know no-one gave us a chance on paper, but we believe in ourselves. We went out there with one thing in mind - winning."

It showed. Right from the off, the USA attacked the game as if their lives depended upon it, as if it was their final game of the tournament and they had to win it. Portugal were knocked out of their stride. Even though they'd talked pre-match of taking nothing for granted, their attitude on the pitch belied their words. They clearly thought they had only to show up to win.

How wrong they were. The Americans never let up and were three goals ahead before the alarm bells seriously rang in the rival camp.

"We played some outstanding stuff for 40 minutes," said Arena, who was deprived of two of his best players in Claudio Reyna and Clint Mathis, both struggling with injuries. "We won it in the first half.

"But you shouldn't be so surprised. This is hardly the first big match my players have played. We've beaten Argentina and Germany in recent years. The difference is here we've done it on the biggest stage."

The USA team had not beaten a European side at the World Cup since the dramatic 1-0 win over England at the 1950 tournament. They managed only one goal in three games at France 98, when an unhappy squad under-performed for controversial coach Steve Sampson, who had split the camp with his selection and tactical choices.

"There's no way we could have won a game like this four years ago," admitted Brad Friedel. "There's a different spirit now."

Portugal coach Antonio Oliveira shifted some of the blame on the fact his players have suffered from long hard seasons in Europe. The French made similar noises after the Senegal game.

"The Americans had more time to prepare this game, and that's not insignificant,'' Oliveira said. "We lacked pace and didn't create much."

The USA had enjoyed a better preparation period and there may be something in Oliveira's point. Arena said his team had been together since May 1 getting set for the World Cup. Portugal's Luis Figo, a pale shadow of the dashing winger who set pulses racing at Barcelona and Real Madrid, did not finish his season until mid-May.

The Senegal players had had much less demanding seasons than the French and it could be the big teams are a bit slower into their stride because they haven't had so long to recover. They have to do it quickly, though, if we are to see the best of them.

Meanwhile, the Americans, whose last World Cup win was back in 1994 when they staged the tournament, were enjoying their moment.

"Beating Portugal has got to be right up there," Arena added. "It's our biggest victory in the modern era. We hadn't beaten a top team like Portugal in the World Cup for 52 years. Let's hope it grabs people's attention back home.

He added: "The world of football is shrinking. The big powers are still the big powers but the gap has closed considerably."

The USA's win left the group with an unexpected look after the first round of games, coming on top of South Korea's defeat of Poland. The Americans face the co-hosts next.

With the Koreans beating Poland 2-0, the game has taken on new meaning. The winner may well be qualified before playing their last game.

"We mustn't get carried away," Arena warned. "We still need to win another game. But I don't see why we shouldn't do just that."

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