In the time-honoured tradition of all good thrillers, the denouement to Sven Goran Eriksson's maiden production, Who will go to the World Cup? is proving to be suitably tense. The big surprise, though, is that the most debated subplot may well be resolved earlier than anticipated.
If you thought the left-sided debate would rage on until the squad announcement, then think again. Eriksson, it would seem, believes he has found his man. Whodunnit? Wayne Bridge.
The emergence of the Southampton left-footer is fast turning out to be the story of England's final preparations. To most, the 21-year-old has come from nowhere, rising from club to international honours in the space of just 18 months. So far as Eriksson is concerned, though, Bridge is one of the few Premiership players with the right credentials for the left. "He is a very modern left-back," the England coach said. "He knows how to defend but he is not afraid to show his abilities going forward as well. That's important."
Of all the defenders on show at Elland Road for the friendly against Italy – eight were given a run-out – Bridge impressed most. True, he was on the field the longest, but that alone does not explain why he caught the eye. Unlike two other full-backs, he did not give the ball away cheaply. Nor did he panic when confronted by an Italian attacker.
"I really enjoyed the experience," Bridge said. "It was great to win my second cap and, hopefully, there will be more in the future. The coach has already shown that he will play people if he thinks they are good enough and, now that I have been in the team a couple of times in a row, I hope it lasts."
It is typical of Eriksson that while most have been debating the merits of recalling Chelsea's Graeme Le Saux to fill one of the positions on the left flank, the Swede has quietly gone about his business and provided the nation with a younger, faster and, crucially, more disciplined option. Bridge's assured performance against Italy only proved that his excellent debut against Holland in February was no fluke.
"Bridge was the big surprise," said Giovanni Trapattoni, the Italy manager. "He impressed me very much."
Bridge is the perfect example of how the new-look England set-up is starting to bear its first fruits. Having impressed with the Under-21s, he was quickly singled out for promotion by the coach. "Let's face it," David Platt said, "if Wayne was at Arsenal or Liverpool, he'd probably have won 10 caps by now."
Bridge would be the first to admit that he is far from the finished international article, yet he is clearly a fast learner and, importantly, can play at either left-back or left-midfield. "I guess my versatility might be an added bonus," he said, "but there are a lot of other players fighting for a World Cup place so I will have to continue to play well for Southampton if I am going to be picked again by Mr Eriksson."
Never one to deny up-and-coming talents the chance to shine, the England coach might even be considering pairing Bridge with his fellow youngster, Ashley Cole of Arsenal, on the left flank in the Far East. The combination looks exciting, if a little risky. But then time is fast running out and few other players seem capable of filling the troublesome left-side slots.
"I have talked about this with the coaches," Eriksson admitted, "and we will see. If we don't find a better solution, then it may be possible to test it in training at the very least."
Some might argue that Bridge is standing out only because there is such a dearth of talented full-backs in the Premiership at the moment, but that would be unfair on a player who reads the game well and is not afraid to combine attacking and defensive duties. Furthermore, he is, compared to the likes of Charlton's Chris Powell, a genuine long-term option. "It's encouraging when people say you're shaping up all right," Bridge said shyly, "but I know I've still got plenty to learn."
Having started out as a midfielder for his school in Winchester, Bridge was converted in to a left-back by the former Southampton manager Dave Jones. "I got my chance because John Beresford was injured and we were short of a left-back for a game against Wimbledon [in December 1998]," he recalled. "I can't say it felt natural straight away, but I think I'm settling in to the role well now."
According to Southampton's European scout, Terry Cooper, Bridge always had the potential to be a left-back. "He was a left-winger when he first came, but we felt he got marked too easily in the final third," said the former England full-back. "But he was very strong, quick and mobile, and we reckoned he would make a smashing defender. He has not let us down."
Nor has Bridge ever disappointed in an England shirt. Even so, he is too modest to discuss the ever-increasing possibility of participation in this summer's big tournament. "I'd love to be there," he said, "of course I would. But if I don't go, then there are plenty of other things to do."
It will come as little surprise that, despite his apparent nonchalance, Bridge has yet to book his summer holidays.
Group of Death How the others fared
Nigeria 1 Paraguay 1
Two months before a World Cup is hardly the best time to change the manager, the captain, and the majority of the team. But then, since when have Nigeria done anything by the book? The new coach, Adegboye Onigbinde, has removed the captain, Sunday Oliseh, and his "clique", opting for Kanu and a much younger group. The team have had little time to gel, but the spirit is said to be much better. The 1-1 draw against Paraguay at Loftus Road on Tuesday is seen as the first step on the road to recovery. "We'll give it a real go this summer," Kanu said.
Argentina 2 Cameroon 2
Do not read too much into Wednesday's result; Argentina will be far more focused come June. But at least their supposedly impregnable defence showed weaknesses against the powerful Cameroon forwards. Patrick Suffo, who scored a header five minutes from time to level matters in the friendly in Geneva, proved that Marcelo Bielsa's team are vulnerable in the air. No such problems in attack, though, and the forward line of the Claudios, Lopez and Caniggia, not to mention Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola, will take some stopping.
Sweden 1 Switzerland 1
Sweden were disappointing against Switzerland, although they did not field their first-choice XI. Marcus Allback, who gave the Swedes an early lead, shows signs of improvement, but there would appear to be few other goal-scoring sources. Of late, only Henrik Larsson has seemed capable of offering any real creativity. In that respect, it is encouraging for them that Everton's Jesper Blomqvist made his first start for more than two years. Perhaps he will be able to shake off Sweden's tag of being well organised, if a little dull.