He is the master of caution by reputation, but after England's second last-minute win against South American opposition this season Sven Goran Eriksson has given his broadest hint yet that he will take five strikers to the World Cup finals - which looks set to hand a place to Darren Bent, despite his debut struggle against Uruguay.
As he considered his options following the 2-1 win on Wednesday, Eriksson said that the versatility of players like Jamie Carragher and Ledley King "might open the door for a fifth striker" which, on the strength of the current hierarchy, would give the place to the 22-year-old from Charlton Athletic. Bent did not do enough to convince that he is worth a promotion up the hierarchy over Jermain Defoe but he is so far ahead of Crystal Palace's Andy Johnson, the next contender, that even 82 minutes of relative anonymity against Uruguay should not destroy his chances.
Eriksson learnt yesterday that Ashley Cole will be out for three weeks with an ankle sprain, Wayne Bridge's ligament problems could rule him out for twice that, but both look likely to make the final squad if they can prove their fitness. Eriksson said during the week that certain players' fitness, Cole included, was worth taking a risk on.
"Do we have two right-backs, two centre-halves, two left-backs?" the England manager asked yesterday. "You can never have it worked out." What he does appear to have settled upon is a less rigid adherence to the policy of two players for every position that he has used in his two previous major tournaments. With King able to switch between midfield and defence, and Carragher and Owen Hargreaves offering cover at full-back as well as their orthodox positions, Eriksson's final squad looks likely to be one that favours adaptable players.
Other than in the event of injuries, it would now seem unlikely that, from this week's squad, Jermaine Jenas, Luke Young, Wes Brown and Kieran Richardson will make the World Cup finals. From the group of longer shots, Jonathan Woodgate, Phil Neville and Paul Konchesky can begin to plan their summer with even less fear of interruption unless, in Woodgate's case, injuries to other centre-backs coincide with his own prompt return to fitness.
It is in his team's defence that Eriksson has cause for the greatest misgivings and David Beckham's admission that "teams are going to get chances against us" will worry an England manager whose only current fit specialist left-back is Konchesky. Carragher deputised ably in the position as a substitute on Wednesday and his flexibility means that a place in Germany is virtually guaranteed.
But it is not only at left-back that Eriksson was given some cause for concern against Uruguay. Rio Ferdinand may now have re-established himself as a first-team choice after being dropped against Austria in October but, robbed of possession in the early stages of the match by Diego Forlan, he was candid in his assessment of his own performance. "I didn't feel I played well," he said.
Joe Cole had to wait until the 92nd minute for his winning goal, but the Chelsea midfielder said that he had no problem playing a full match with his club facing their Champions' League second-leg game against Barcelona on Tuesday after the Premiership match against West Bromwich Albion tomorrow. Eriksson, who counts Jose Mourinho as one of his closer managerial allies in the Premiership, is understood to have had permission to leave Cole on the pitch.
"I play my best football when I play 90 minutes," Cole said. "You build yourself into the game and as it opens up in the last 20 minutes that's when you can do your damage."
Since his debut against Colombia last summer, Peter Crouch has established himself as the first alternative to the pairing of Wayne Rooney and the injured Michael Owen, a plan he said he hopes to fulfil in Germany this summer. He said: "They are top-class players and they're going to be starting ahead of me, but if I can play some role, then that's great."
England's finest: Who's off to Germany and the men who flew the flag in Japan and Portugal
Sven Goran Eriksson's probable England squad for the World Cup finals in June (squad announced 15 May)
Paul Robinson (Tottenham, aged 26)
David James (Manchester City, 35)
Robert Green (Norwich City, 26)
John Terry (Chelsea, 25)
Rio Ferdinand (Man United, 27)
Sol Campbell (Arsenal, 31)
Ledley King (Tottenham, 25)
Jamie Carragher (Liverpool, 28)
Ashley Cole (Arsenal, 25)
Gary Neville (Man United, 31)
Wayne Bridge (Fulham, on loan from Chelsea, 25)
David Beckham (Real Madrid, 30)
Frank Lampard (Chelsea, 27)
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool, 25)
Joe Cole (Chelsea, 24)
Shaun Wright-Phillips (Chelsea, 24)
Michael Carrick (Tottenham, 24)
Owen Hargreaves (B Munich, 25)
Michael Owen (Newcastle United, 26)
Wayne Rooney (Man United, 20)
Peter Crouch (Liverpool, 25)
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham, 23)
Darren Bent (Charlton Athletic, 21)
WORLD CUP SQUAD 2002 (Japan/South Korea):
David Seaman (Arsenal, aged 38), Nigel Martyn (Leeds, 35), David James (West Ham, 31); Danny Mills (Leeds, 25), Ashley Cole (Arsenal, 21), Wayne Bridge (Southampton, 21), Rio Ferdinand (Leeds, 23), Sol Campbell (Arsenal, 27), Wes Brown (Man Utd, 23), Martin Keown (Arsenal, 35), Gareth Southgate (Middlesbrough, 31); David Beckham (Man Utd, 27), Paul Scholes (Man Utd, 27), Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich, 21), Nicky Butt (Man Utd, 27), Trevor Sinclair (West Ham, 29), Kieron Dyer (Newcastle, 23), Joe Cole (West Ham, 20); Michael Owen (Liverpool, 22), Emile Heskey (Liverpool, 24), Teddy Sheringham (Tottenham, 36), Robbie Fowler (Leeds, 27), Darius Vassell (Aston Villa, 21).
EURO 2004 SQUAD (Portugal)
David James (Man City, 33), Paul Robinson (Tottenham, 24), Ian Walker (Leicester, 32); Gary Neville (Man Utd, 29), John Terry (Chelsea, 23), Sol Campbell (Arsenal, 29), Ashley Cole (Arsenal, 23), Wayne Bridge (Chelsea, 23), Phil Neville (Man Utd, 27), Ledley King (Tottenham, 23), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool, 26); David Beckham (Real Madrid, 29), Paul Scholes (Man Utd, 29), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool, 23), Frank Lampard (Chelsea, 25), Nicky Butt (Man Utd, 29), Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich, 23), Joe Cole (Chelsea, 22), Kieron Dyer (Newcastle, 25); Wayne Rooney (Everton, 18), Michael Owen (Liverpool, 24), Emile Heskey (Birmingham City, 26), Darius Vassell (Aston Villa, 23).
Strengths and weaknesses from Acuna to Zlatan: How England's World Cup group stage opponents fared this week
PARAGUAY (drew 0-0 with Wales)
Strength of team on Wednesday: Both the key attacker, Bayern Munich's Roque Santa Cruz, and defensive leader, Carlos Gamarra, were injured.
Style: Orthodox 4-4-2, playing through midfield. Not the most rigorous pressing game.
Key players: Roberto Acuna looked a classic playmaking No 10. Nelson Valdez was a constant threat with his flamboyant skill.
Strengths: Acuna's ability to find his strikers; Valdez's pacy dribbling; the wiles of wide men Edgar Barreto and Julio Dos Santos.
Weaknesses: Craig Bellamy's mobility troubled their somewhat rigid centre-backs, which should encourage Michael Owen.
SWEDEN (lost 3-0 to Republic of Ireland)
Strength of team on Wednesday: Freddie Ljungberg was the biggest absentee. Other probable starters did not feature as the Swedish season has not yet begun.
Style: A rigid 4-4-2, or a 4-1-3-2 with Tobias Linderoth as the holding player in midfield.
Key players: The strikers Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Anderlecht's Christian Wilhelmsson provides energy down the left.
Strengths: In a word - Ibrahimovic. A major concern for England.
Weaknesses: Lacked creativity in midfield. Right-back Alexander Ostlund was vulnerable to pace, and goalkeeper Andreas Isakson was unconvincing, especially on crosses. Defence a little creaky.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO (beat Iceland 2-0)
Strength of team on Tuesday: Full-strength.
Style: Orthodox 4-4-2, with too many long balls.
Key players: Dwight Yorke scored both goals against Iceland, while Chris Birchall will run all day in midfield. Collin Samuel and Carlos Edwards will get behind defenders to fire in crosses.
Strengths: Their gay abandon and naivety could trouble opponents who are not at the top of their game.
Weaknesses: Yorke's strike partner Stern John is no Wayne Rooney, but coach Leo Beenhakker will be most concerned at his side's suspect defence.
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