Carrick return adds touch of gloss to England's end-of-season report

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The Independent Online

A season which began unpromisingly for Sven Goran Eriksson ended in moderate triumph yesterday as he returned from America with reason to believe England will be genuine contenders at next summer's World Cup.

A season which began unpromisingly for Sven Goran Eriksson ended in moderate triumph yesterday as he returned from America with reason to believe England will be genuine contenders at next summer's World Cup.

Eriksson embarked on the campaign with his private life again mired in scandal and his professional expertise doubted after the failure of Euro 2004. A year on, England are top of their qualifying group and brimming with belief, having won eight out of 11 matches and lost one - that a friendly in Spain. Eriksson also successfully negotiated what could have been an embarrassing tour of the United States, not only winning twice but also finding a player or two.

Chief among those is Michael Carrick. While Tuesday's victory over Colombia confirmed the value of Michael Owen, whose hat-trick moved him into the top four in the England goalscoring records, it was the quiet man in midfield who gained most from the tour.

A year ago Carrick was injured and contemplating another season of Championship football with West Ham. As recently as September he was unable to get into the Tottenham team. Now he is in line to play a key role in next year's World Cup finals.

In New Jersey on Tuesday, Carrick confirmed the good impression he had made against the US in Chicago on Saturday with another mature performance in the midfield holding role. He mopped up Colombian attacks, linked the play and gave shape to a patched-up England team.

"Carrick has proved that he's an option for the sort of role Nicky Butt plays," said Eriksson. "We've not seen him for a long time in the England team and he did very well. He is a realistic alternative in midfield. He plays very solidly as a sitting midfielder, he's good on the ball, clever with his feet and has a good range of passing. He's been a real positive."

Carrick admitted: "I've been satisfied with my form here. It's a big year for me. I want to stay in the Tottenham team and go to the World Cup. I wouldn't go back to the situation at the start of the season when I couldn't even get into my club side."

Given that Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard currently occupy England's two central midfield positions, it would seem Carrick will struggle to win a place in the starting XI. However, both those players are offensively minded and their desire to go forward has at times left England unbalanced and the defence vulnerable. Against teams of World Cup finals quality, Carrick's inclusion is a real possibility.

Besides, as Eriksson knows, there will be injuries before then. "If we don't have any injuries it's difficult to beat us, but you never know what will happen," he said. "But we will be going into the World Cup with more players who I know I can put into the team and they will do a good job. It's the strongest squad I've had. Of course, we have to qualify first, but I feel the situation is different to even two years ago as we were heading towards Euro 2004.

"Now the players have experience. If you want to win a big tournament like the World Cup you can't expect to do it with a team with an average age of 24. You have to have that experience, so you know how to be clever on the pitch when you need to be clever. I can see that in these players now. Just guarantee me no injuries. If you can guarantee me that, I know we will have a great chance next summer."

Injuries are inevitable but, as Eriksson said, he now has cover in most positions. Goalkeeping is a concern but there is no shortage of centre-halves, midfielders or strikers.

The emergence of Peter Crouch and Shaun Wright-Phillips gives England useful options, while the Champions' League performances of Gerrard, Lampard, Jamie Carragher and John Terry are very encouraging. There are even alternatives in the troublesome left flank position, with Stewart Downing and Kieran Richardson coming through.

At present, however, it looks as if Joe Cole will be on the left, after finally learning to apply his talent sensibly and consistently. "It's taken me a good three years to convince the manager I am the man for the job so I am not going to give it up lightly," he said.

England's next match is an August friendly in Denmark before they resume their World Cup qualifying campaign with two double-headers against Wales and Northern Ireland in September, then Austria and Poland in October.

Assuming qualification is achieved, Eriksson will then begin the process of fine-tuning his team and squad while praying there are no major injuries.

Possible World Cup squad: Robinson, James, Kirkland; G Neville, Carragher, Campbell, Ferdinand, Terry, King, A Cole, Bridge; Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, J Cole, Carrick, Wright-Phillips, Hargreaves, Downing; Owen, Defoe, Rooney, Crouch.

Graduates and failures: How the Eriksson academy's class of 2004-5 performed

Michael Carrick (Tottenham)

Included in Eriksson's first squad, in March 2001, but absent for nearly four years before the American tour. Premiership form and two impressive appearances Stateside mean he is first in line if Eriksson uses a holding midfielder.

John Terry (Chelsea)

The England manager is spoilt for choice at centre-half but Terry's strong year for club and country has boosted him into prime position to benefit from Sol Campbell's injury problems and Rio Ferdinand's off-field idiocies.

Joe Cole (Chelsea)

Spent Euro 2004 on the bench but club form earned him a chance he has been quick to seize. He played in last four internationals and did well in each, not least because he has eschewed flashiness for team play. His adaptability is now a virtue.

Nicky Butt (Newcastle United)

Started season as Eriksson's holding midfielder but form has collapsed and his international career looks over. Perhaps the legs have gone but it has been only three years since he was Pele's choice as England's World Cup best.

David James (Manchester City)

Blunder against Austria saw Eriksson giving Paul Robinson a go in goal. It was nine months before James got a shot at redemption and blew it, in Chicago and New Jersey. Has talent and desire but something is missing.

Andy Johnson (Crystal Palace)

Deserved his chance after excellent club season but was played out of position against the Netherlands then, then up front in Chicago, came up short. A goal poacher, but Eriksson has Michael Owen and Jermain Defoe.

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