It just keeps getting better, at least according to popular perception. Not only have England qualified automatically for the 2002 World Cup, an event in which they will almost certainly be seeded, but they boast that rare characteristic in their coach – he is coveted rather than castigated.
As for the players, how their demeanours have changed from the days when those approaching the veteran stage accepted retirement with a shrug and the youngsters were content to "wait their turn" for two or maybe four years. Suddenly, the Rough Guides to Japan and Korea are being consulted and queues for contention in Sven Goran Eriksson's squad are as long as those of aspiring pop stars in the eponymous TV show.
From the dead certs to the daydream believers, there are approaching 70 players who will spend the winter entertaining some degree of hope of representing their country. Yet, if England's prospects are surveyed dispass-ionately, things are far from as propitious as they appear. Eriksson was never going to be so deluded. If he was, the last two games, both at Old Trafford, have provided stark warnings of the fallibility of his squad.
That thought came to mind when it was revealed last week that Rick Parfitt, guitarist with Status Quo, has repetitive strain injury. It is a problem, the cynics of the ageing rockers maintain, that is not unconnected with the band relying for their repertoire on just three chords. In a sense, Eriksson is discovering that he has a similar phenomenon with which to contend.
Ten games into his tenure, and with a total of 38 players examined, the Swede will have been forced to concede by now, albeit privately, that England place far too strong a reliance on three performers – David Beckham, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. Considering that the latter two Liverpool players are injury-prone, it leaves his squad extremely vulnerable.
To be generous, you could add Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand to that trio – indeed, the five Englishmen are among the 50 contenders for the European Player of the Year award, which is made on 18 December – though the recent form of Scholes has scarcely merited inclusion and Ferdinand still has improvement in him. But the brutal truth is that, despite the renaissance under Eriksson, England remain no more than a good-to-middling team without that three-man band who provide such a significant rhythm for their team-mates.
The forward threat, or lack of it, is most worrying. Should young master Owen (14 goals in 32 appearances) be troubled by his hamstring, Teddy Sheringham (11 in 43 appearances) remains the only other player who can be relied upon to score. However, the Tottenham man, surely among Eriksson's certainties to travel, is essentially a second striker and provider rather than outright goalscorer. The other five contenders – Emile Heskey, Robbie Fowler, Kevin Phillips, Alan Smith and Andy Cole – have scored nine goals between them, in a total of 67 appearances.
Fowler is a class act, though he appears more proficient for his country when emerging from the substitutes' bench. Smith will benefit from further experience. But, overall, it is a sorry state and diminishes confidence in England's expectations, particularly when Scholes fails to sustain that ready supply of goals from midfield, too. Eriksson cannot always rely on his captain, dead-ball positions and the benefit of debatable refereeing decisions.
It can only be hoped that the next three months will unearth a late developer among the Under-21 contingent whose form makes him strong enough to be considered. Jermain Defoe? Darius Vassell? Or, of the more experienced players, could there still be a role for Chris Sutton or Marcus Stewart?
But, most pertinently, what of Blackburn's Matt Jansen? While the excellent form of his club-mate David Dunn, captain of the Under-21s, is likely to persuade Eriksson to consider him for that left-midfield berth, the claims for a striker's role of the former Carlisle and Crystal Palace man appear to have been ignored. Possibly not after yesterday's goal against Liverpool.
Admittedly, the former Under-21 player with the deft turn of foot and alert football brain has scored only four goals for Blackburn this season, and there is some dispute about his best position, but his "shots on target" record and success ratio is close to that of the prolific Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, according to Premiership statistics. Jansen must be worthy of a chance.
Together with the perennial dilemma regarding left midfield and determining a third goalkeeper to understudy David Seaman and Nigel Martyn (could Chris Kirkland be the man, following that splendid performance against Holland Under-21s in midweek?), Eriksson's priority will be reinforcements for a rearguard which still tends to suffer from weak links.
John Terry performed with sufficient confidence and resourcefulness for the Under-21s to convince Eriksson of his potential as understudy to Sol Campbell and Ferdinand. Ledley King and Wayne Bridge may also be in contention. From last Saturday's senior friendly against Sweden, Danny Mills demonstrated that he possesses the ability to challenge for Gary Neville's position and can also provide support as midfield back-up.
Danny Murphy has timed his run perfectly to enforce his selection in next year's pre-World Cup friendlies, while Michael Carrick cannot be discounted, although that pair are among no fewer than 21 players competing for the probable eight midfield places in the squad.
In terms of quantity, Eriksson has an enviable cast from which to select his lead players for the final 23. But now the really difficult part begins for the England coach: effective quality control. Sven could do with more than just three chords.
England musts and maybes
Certainties: David Seaman, Nigel Martyn, Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand, Gareth Southgate, David Beckham; Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, Emile Heskey, Robbie Fowler, Teddy Sheringham.
Probables: David James, Danny Mills, Jamie Carragher, Martin Keown, Steve McManaman, Darren Anderton, Nicky Butt, Nicky Barmby, Owen Hargreaves, Lee Bowyer (pending outcome of court case), Kieron Dyer (barring injury).
Possibles: Richard Wright, Phil Neville, Chris Powell, Ugo Ehiogu, Wes Brown, Graeme Le Saux, Gareth Barry, John Terry, Danny Murphy, Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick, Trevor Sinclair, Ray Parlour, David Dunn, Andy Cole, Alan Smith, Kevin Phillips.
Dreamers: Ian Walker, Chris Kirkland, Michael Ball, Wayne Bridge, Stephen Wright, Ledley King, Joe Cole, Gavin McCann, Lee Hendrie, Tim Sherwood, David Batty, Paul Ince, Jermain Defoe, Darius Vassell, Marcus Stewart, Chris Sutton.Reuse content