In less than a year, the mood of despair has be transformed to near-delirium. Nothing is unattainable, now that England's football followers have immersed themselves in a warm, relaxing bath containing a rich oil of expectancy. So how do these optimists regard the threat of Greece, possibly empowered by recent Champions' League results? Of no great consequence.
And an England deprived of Michael Owen and Sol Campbell? Problematic, but not ones which are insurmountable. And what of an England who may have to depend on two strikers, Andy Cole and Robbie Fowler, who are not regulars in their club sides? Nothing that Sven Goran Eriksson cannot overcome.
That is the attitude that appears to pervade the nation. Just lie back, luxuriate and ponder the possibilities of Japan and South Korea next summer. Even the terminally inept Mike Bassett (the England manager, as portrayed by Ricky Tomlinson) could surely procure three points at Old Trafford on Saturday, let alone God's coaching representative on earth, the mighty Sven, couldn't he? And, anyway, Germany have still to manage a better result than England away to Finland.
Straightforward though the conclusion to World Cup qualifying Group Nine appears, it will be an anxious two hours. Fortunately, those with a propensity to suffer undue stress can take strength in Sven Goran Eriksson's ability to instill confidence in individuals and belief throughout a team. More than anything, he will discourage any preconceptions that Greece will purely be present as willing plate-hurlers at England's post-match celebrations.
"I'm sure a large number of people think we have qualified already," warned Eriksson. "And that is a very dangerous mistake, bearing in mind that we have struggled at times against Albania in our last match as well as away in Greece. This match will be difficult and we have to have our focus correct."
Eriksson's assistant Tord Grip, who witnessed Arsenal's 1-0 defeat by Panathinaikos on Wednesday night, added: "The players are fully aware that Greece have nothing to lose. They are coming to England and if they can beat us or get a draw, they will make history. Don't forget, the Greek club sides are doing well in the Champions' League so we must be careful and work hard to get a good result. The difference between a great team and a big team is that a great team will never underestimate anyone."
Denied major performers and with uncertainty over the form of others, this will be Eriksson's most demanding test in terms of selection. Grip, however, refused to dwell on the absence of Owen. "Michael has been out before. You can win without him," he said defiantly. "He was out for Liverpool against Kiev and they won. We have to do the same." Yet, the truth is that, without the injured Owen, Alan Smith, and the apparently out-of-favour Kevin Phillips, England are scarcely overrun with finishers. Certainly, you can name Emile Heskey, Cole, Fowler, Sheringham and maybe Chris Sutton, but who is the proven international predator among them?
Fowler would be under normal circumstances, of course, a player without the pace of his Anfield team-mate Owen, but who compensates with sheer cunning. But after a running verbal duel with his manager Gérard Houllier, who has expressed doubts about his fitness, what kind of psychological state will he be in? Eriksson may study him in training and decide that his lacklustre recent club form is not an accurate indicator of how he will perform for his country, particularly as he enjoyed a splendidly productive evening in the game in Athens.
But should the Swede decide it is chance not worth taking, it appears a straight choice between Cole and Heskey as first striker, although the former has not been playing regularly for Manchester United while, arguably, the latter is better deployed in a wider role.
"Of course, it is a pity [neither Fowler or Cole is playing regularly]," said Grip. "But we cannot do anything about these things because their managers do what they think is best for their clubs – which is right. They can't think about the national team and they shouldn't. This is something that national managers have to deal with nowadays. Big clubs have a lot of good players so it is bound to happen." Victory will confirm England's qualification and under those circumstances it is inconceivable that Eriksson will not deploy a positive assault force.
The best solution would be to reunite Cole and Sheringham, which proved successful for Manchester United last season despite the players' apparent reluctance to communicate, with Heskey on the left. Sheringham's footballing brain seems to become more agile as every year passes – he is also scoring, as well – but if the England coach feels the Tottenham man, at 35, does not represent the future of England, then he could ask Scholes to support Cole as a second striker.
Sutton may well be called up, following convincing performances for Celtic, and though he gives Eriksson a further option as a second striker it is difficult to imagine him starting the game.
If there is one dilemma worse than "how do you replace Owen?", it is solving the perennial left-side conundrum. Unless Heskey is utilised there, the England management must choose between Nick Barmby and Steve McManaman, neither of whom have been convincing. It may be that Eriksson will have cast a shrewd eye over Darren Anderton, who, unless he is unavailable having "thrown a sickie", does possess undoubted quality at international level.
Eriksson names his squad this evening and a name that will already be inscribed in bold letters will be Rio Ferdinand. The Leeds centre-back does not yet regard himself as a fixture, even if selection of central defenders is becoming a question of "Rio and who?" Martin Keown appears the obvious cover for Campbell, though Gareth Southgate should not be ruled out.
After Leeds' Uefa Cup tie, Ferdinand was asked which partner he'd prefer. The Londoner is far too cute for that. "I'm not at the point where I can pick and choose," he replied. "I've got to make the best of each situation, so Sol, Wes [Brown, also injured], Martin, Gareth, whoever's put in there, it doesn't matter. As long as I'm in there, we can try and work on something. Sol and Wes are two quality players but people like Martin Keown and Gareth Southgate are more than worthy to step in. Wherever you play on the pitch you want to be the dominant force, you want your name to be among those first down on the list. But that only comes with time. I've got to keep performing well for Leeds and hopefully that will spur me on for England as well."
Already Leeds captain, at only 22, the defender looks destined to succeed Beckham as England skipper. The move north last season must have been one of the best decisions made by any player. "By giving me the captaincy the boss [David O'Leary] has shown confidence in me and the bigger games in Europe last season definitely brought me on as a player," he said. "If you can do well in those games it puts you up in a different league."
He added: "I'm more stable now. The bright lights in London were maybe too bright for me. I've got away and looked back and realised the mistakes I've made. That's all far behind me now. I'm determined to get to the World Cup finals. I went there last time and never played, so I'm desperate to get back again."
For that reason, there will be no place for the complacency, which many of the nation's supporters are bound to harbour. "Not a chance," assured Ferdinand. "Once we're together, the manager won't allow us to get like that, and the players are too professional, anyway. We've got ourselves in a great position now. Nobody could have imagined we'd be here a year ago. To get this far and throw it all away in one game would be stupid."
The striking choices facing Eriksson
In the absence of Michael Owen, the England coach is restricted in his choice of "first" striker. With Kevin Phillips not in his best club form and Alan Smith injured, Eriksson has the dilemma of whether to gamble on the physical and mental wellbeing of Robbie Fowler.
Option 1: The preferred solution would be a Liverpool pairing of Emile Heskey and Fowler.
Option 2: Alternatively, Manchester United's Andy Cole could be asked to link with Fowler.
Option 3: However, unless Fowler's performance – if selected – against Newcastle today answers manager Gérard Houllier's criticism of him, Eriksson may favour a pairing forged at Old Trafford, with Cole in an advanced position and either the in-form Teddy Sheringham, now at Spurs, or Paul Scholes operating as a second striker. Heskey could then fill the problem left-side berth.
Option 4: Heskey and Cole together could be another possibility, both supported by Scholes or Sheringham in the hole. Option 5: Celtic's Chris Sutton is likely to be in the squad, and could provide another variation as a second striker, though lack of international experience counts against him.Reuse content