Emphasis on Coles and goals as Eriksson seeks defining display

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Even by the admission of Rio Ferdinand, the English nation expects a "cricket score" against Northern Ireland in today's World Cup qualifier at Old Trafford, but it is not the humble nature of the opposition alone that is supposed to make this match a brutal, one-sided bout. It is England's time too, a squad as close to full strength as is usually possible, who have been judged long overdue in delivering a performance that reflects the reservoir of talent at Sven Goran Eriksson's disposal.

Even by the admission of Rio Ferdinand, the English nation expects a "cricket score" against Northern Ireland in today's World Cup qualifier at Old Trafford, but it is not the humble nature of the opposition alone that is supposed to make this match a brutal, one-sided bout. It is England's time too, a squad as close to full strength as is usually possible, who have been judged long overdue in delivering a performance that reflects the reservoir of talent at Sven Goran Eriksson's disposal.

For the England coach's 50th match in charge it is therefore fitting that Joe Cole looks set to start his first competitive international match. If ever there was an embodiment of the romantic English football fan's belief that their country possesses talent in abundance to conquer the world if only they knew how to deploy it, then it comes in the shape of Chelsea's 23-year-old midfielder. A prodigal talent and a tough little character with a child's voice, whose brilliant touch is matched only by his occasional propensity to take the most heart-stopping, unnecessary risks.

If England - with the help of Jose Mourinho - can tame the self-destructive impulse in a player occasionally so self-indulgent that fans at his former club West Ham nicknamed him "Jinky Joe Cole", the side deserves to take its place among the élite of world football. First, however, come Northern Ireland and the brand of dogged resistance that their thoroughly admirable manager Lawrie Sanchez will have no fear in employing against an England team laden with attacking options.

Eriksson yesterday addressed the question of Ashley Cole's suitability to play an international match just days after he was charged for his part in the bitter, unhappy dispute between Arsenal and Chelsea over the alleged "tapping up" of the left-back. The England coach said that he had spoken to Cole about his situation and was satisfied that he was "calm" enough to play. "I talked to Ashley a couple of times this week and he seems to be OK," Eriksson said. "I can't see that he has been affected."

On the left side of England's attack, Ashley Cole will be expected to develop some kind of understanding with his namesake Joe, but as the Arsenal full-back has rarely twice had the same man ahead of him in midfield, that should not be a problem. For the Chelsea player this game is crucial and he might wish to turn his mind back to a disastrous lapse of concentration at Elland Road three years ago when his mistake led to Italy's equaliser in a 2-1 defeat and jeopardised his place in the 2002 World Cup squad.

Cole left the stadium with a look of sheer desolation and, although he made it to Japan, he had just one fleeting substitute's appearance. Today it will be crucial for Cole to prove to Eriksson he has the discipline to hold his position and give England genuine width, as well as keep an eye on Keith Gillespie who, even at 30 and playing in the Championship with Leicester City, can still pose a threat.

As well as Birmingham's goalkeeper Maik Taylor and Newcastle's Aaron Hughes, Northern Ireland also have Stuart Elliott, the scorer of 28 goals this season, albeit all bar one for Hull City in League One. "No excuses?" Eriksson replied to a question about the one-sidedness of today, "I suppose so." In theory, there should be no problem breaking down a team so far down international football's hierarchy but, as witnessed in the FA Cup this year with Newcastle's and Manchester United's struggles with respectively Yeading and Exeter City, that can be a laborious process.

There is a danger that the game could be a demoralising war of attrition played out in front of an increasingly disillusioned crowd, who will be only too aware that Northern Ireland were conquered last month by a football nation as lowly as Canada. Eriksson denied that the friendly performance in the 0-0 draw against the Netherlands last month had been "awful rubbish" and defended England's right to play the kind of effective, contained football that would earn qualification for major tournaments.

"We have played well many times," he said. "More or less all the qualification games apart from Macedonia [a 2-2 draw in October 2002]. I think you will not qualify for, or win, the World Cup without playing good football. You can't play bad football and hope to win the World Cup, it's impossible. Of course, I want to play good football. But it's a qualification game and we need to win."

There was a quick checklist of typical Eriksson reassurances: that David Beckham had not been affected this week by his admission that the Spanish paparazzi have harassed his children; that Wayne Rooney will keep his temper; and that there are no easy games at international level.

He ended by recounting a conversation with the late Rinus Michels in which the Dutch coach had admitted even he did not know how his Netherlands team of the 1970s had developed "total football". Eriksson seemed to be suggesting the coach has only limited influence, but today at least you would assume that he could guarantee a victory for England.

Comments