A Bridge so close as Vassell steams ahead

World Cup countdown: Old heads still the key as Sven adds spice to the selection process with a vote for youth
Click to follow

From a generation of young wannabes Sven-Goran Eriksson is clearly intent on leaving no turn unauditioned. With Darius receiving the biggest vote and Wayne a gallant second in the quest to unearth new talent, Wednesday night in Amsterdam could not help but bear a certain similarity with the ubiquitous Pop Idol(a television programme much loved by the proletariat, m'lud).

The difference here, though, is that the public do not get to block the country's telephone system with their preferences. There is only one ultimate arbiter, the England coach, who, thus far, has scrutinised no fewer than 42 highly able performers. Some are experienced campaigners, many are talented newcomers, but there are, he was informed, significantly more than any of his predecessors looked at in their first 11 games.

Indeed, Eriksson's attention was politely drawn to the fact that Terry Venables, in particular, had been chided for generosity. The Swede bridled slightly. "I don't know if trying 42 players is good or bad. I don't think about handing out caps, absolutely not." Yes, but how many will he realistically choose from on destiny day, 21 May, when squads must be named? "I'd say 42 was a good figure...."

Reflecting on the night's events, an hour after England's 1-1 draw with Holland, Eriksson sat, surrounded by medical paraphernalia, in the Amsterdam ArenA's doping control room. There are those critics, who, given the circumstances, might have been tempted to ask whetherhe had been extracting the urine with his multiple call-ups. If it had not been for injuries and assorted on and off-field misdemeanours, his tally might have reached the half ton.

But who can criticise the England coach for that? Significantly, the voices raised against Eriksson's temerity in releasing two callow strikers, Aston Villa's Darius Vassell and Bolton's Michael Ricketts, into action against one of the best groups of players (but not necessarily one of the best teams) not to qualify for a World Cup, and then having the audacity not to explain why, have become silent.

A 50 per cent success rate, with Vassell breathing easily in the heady international atmosphere by the second half, is vindication. If we also include the assertive, polished performance of Wayne Bridge at left-back, the evidence in defence of Eriksson's policy of casting his eye over the maximum number of possibles before the planned announcement of his squad shortly before they depart on 14 May for a week's acclimatisation in Dubai, is overwhelming.

He may resemble a man on a packed tube train attempting to hold open the doors, desperately hoping to allow in the last few passengers even if it means delaying departure. But all the evidence is that he will continue doing so right up until the last moment.

Eriksson agreed that for the games against Italy (27 March at Elland Road) and Paraguay (17 April at Anfield), the final two friendlies on home soil, that there would be more emphasis on honing a settled team, but he added: "It is five weeks to the next game. Maybe we will do less experiments next time. I think so. But if players come through like Vassell then you must consider them. One or two players can still be tried."

The coach wants to watch Kieron Dyer against international opposition as well as Ledley King. There is Michael Carrick to survey again, Darren Anderton, and also Joe Cole for more than the 13 minutes the West Ham midfielder was permitted on Wednesday. And what of Owen Hargreaves over in Munich? And then there are the more problematic cases of Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and John Terry.

"If Ledley King [unable to participate because of a throat infection] carries on playing as he has done for Tottenham then he will deserve a chance sooner rather than later," added Eriksson. "But he is young and can play in many World Cups. Of course, if I had to pick the squad tomorrow I know 18 or 19 of the names. But there is time for players to make me change my mind before mid-May."

He added: "I think I was most lucky. I came to England at the right moment, with young players coming through. But when I first arrived I didn't know anything about players like Ashley Cole or Wayne Bridge, not even their names. Bridge has showed that he can play at this level against Holland."

What Eriksson does know in his heart is which which outfield seven personnel could be pencilled into his starting line-up. Medical musical chairs will determine which left-back and central defender will join Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand; which left-sided player will fill the midfield with Beckham, Gerrard, and Scholes.

Owen and Heskey appear already assured of their berths in attack, with David Seaman or Nigel Martyn in goal. But that assumesall remain fit, and that 4-4-2 is appropriate against particular opposition. And the Swede is fully cognizant of the fact that they won't, and it won't necessarily be the case.

To place events in perspective, it must be stressed that Holland's approach on Wednesday bordered on the disdainful at times. Yes, there was a new manager, in Dick Advocaat, ostensibly to impress, but frankly there is not too much he did not know about his players and they looked a collection of performers who do not really have to re-engage serious mood until the Autumn's European championship qualifiers. However, Holland still managed to look more cohesive and a better passing team than England before the interval. Afterwards, the sheer power and purpose of the visitors earned a goal from Vassell and a victory on points.

"We did much better tonight against Holland than we did in August," said Eriksson. "[Patrick] Kluivert always creates problems for us, but less today than last time. It was very good to try three central strikers and three midfielders. To have Beckham, Scholes and Gerrard should have been very good, and it was. For me, it was important to try it. I didn't want to go the World Cup just having used 4-4-2."

He added: "In some games we will need three central midfielders and now we know we can do it. I thought we still had width. Anyway, even if you have Beckham on the right, he will never stay outside right for 90 minutes."

Talk of tube trains brings to mind the film, Sliding Doors, and how much the simplest of acts and decisions shapes our destinies. If the young Tottenham centre-back King had been available to replace Sol Campbell after the interval, would Gareth Southgate have received 45 minutes to demonstrate that his combination with Rio Ferdinand could be so productive? Unlikely. The more Eriksson is tempted to opt for youth, the more those players will require an experienced shoulder with which to be yoked. Southgate, a defender of calm authority and vision, Teddy Sheringham, that ageing cockney Kluivert, and Gary Neville, even at just turned 27, are the kind of performers that England will will require to impart wisdom this summer.

The latter, though occasionally capable of aberration, has won 50 caps under four managers. His relationship with club-mate and friend David Beckham can be nothing but a definite advantage to both players. At time it is almost like veteran caddy and champion golfer.

When the England captain prepared for a second-half free-kick, he did not bother to measure up his shot but stood waiting patiently at nearly 90 degrees. Neville, who has a 12 handicap, ensured the wall had retreated far enough and studied the lie, as it were, before finally handing the master his chosen club. On this occasion Beckham's venomous attempt was well saved by Edwin van der Sar.

Ultimately, of course, Eriksson will blend youth and experience. "It will be very difficult to win the World Cup with a young squad," he said. "I saw the statistic, that winners of the World Cup have an average age of 28, 29 years old."

He added, a touch mischeviously: "But it is good for us in 2006, I think." Which, despite protestations is England's true target.