England find hope in Bridge display

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The Independent Football

Tucked away in the small print of yesterday's newspapers was a reminder not to take friendly internationals seriously. "Portugal 1, Finland 4". Finns ain't what they used to be, as the identity of their goalscorers, Jari Litmanen, Mikael Forssell and Joonas Kolkka underlined, but such a result would be inconceivable in a competitive fixture.

Before disregarding England's defeat to Italy on Wednesday night we should, however, enter into evidence the statement of Mick McCarthy, manager of the Irish team who dispatched Denmark the same evening. "I always wonder whether some countries take these games seriously – but we do," he said.

Although there is evidence that some of England's leading players, such as David Beckham, are learning the Continental art of doing just enough, most are drawn from the same mould as their Irish counterparts. A game is there to be won, whatever the context.

Which means England's disjointed performance against a superior Italian side is a difficult one for Sven Goran Eriksson to assess. He admitted "you learn more about individuals than about the team. Wayne Bridge did well again. Owen Hargreaves did well. So did Joe Cole, though he showed he needs more experience."

Nerves and unfamiliarity were a factor in a dreary first-half performance, inexperience showed when England let slip their lead in the second. Nevertheless, it is just as well that Eriksson declared himself to be "a born optimist," adding that "you have to take out something positive". A pessimist would have looked at the way Italy eased through the gears as required and written off his team's chances in this summer's World Cup.

So might a realist and, if the match served any purpose, other than to confirm Eriksson had found a player in Bridge, it was as a reminder of England's status. Two good performances in seven matches this season, against Germany and the Netherlands away suggests their Fifa ranking of 11th in the world is an accurate one. That tallies with a second-round exit, which was England's fate in 1998 and is likely to be so again.

So. It's out. England will not win the World Cup. But that is not a problem. No one at the Football Association expects them to. The organisation's entire strategy is now based around winning in 2006. Thus the insistence that Eriksson use local coaches ensuring continuity in case Lazio's emotional pull, or the day-to-day involvement of club management elsewhere, prove too tempting. Thus the concentration on youth. Of the 12 new caps awarded by Eriksson only Chris Powell and Trevor Sinclair were over 24. Thus, too, Eriksson and Grip's presence at every under-21 game they can physically get to, and Eriksson's pledge to promote under-21 players if the seniors suffer injury in the World Cup build-up.

Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director, has analysed all the World Cups and European Championships of modern times and concluded that the last two, of 1998 and 2000, were typical in that the winners came from the local region and have an average age around 28. Germany, where the 2006 tournament will be held, has a similar climate and mood to England. By then Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville will be 31, Rio Ferdinand 27, and Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole 26. That is the nucleus of a potentially victorious side.

By then Joe Cole will still only be 24. Watching the under-21s on Tuesday, watching the way Andrea Pirlo controlled the game, one wondered if Cole really will be as good as we hope. Whether, if he was Italian he would just be another in a long line of No 10s dating through Gianni Rivera and Giancarlo Antognoni to the shirt's current owner, Francesco Totti, and Pirlo, the heir apparent? Indeed, if he was Italian, would he just be another Joe Publico?

At Elland Road Cole did not bewitch like Pirlo had at Valley Parade, but he was up against Demetrio Albertini and Gianluca Zambrotta rather than David Prutton and Jermaine Jenas. Given the greater calibre of opponent, he showed enough to suggest he is the genuine article. The question Eriksson needs to resolve, before selecting his final 23, is whether Cole's development would be better served by a starring role with the juniors in the European Under-21 Championships in Switzerland, or a supporting one with the seniors in Japan. Cole's ability to provide the unexpected could tilt the balance towards the latter, but his fate may depend on Kieron Dyer's fitness.

In his post-match analysis Eriksson railed against the fixture congestion of the English game. He has a point, but his predecessors suffered more. Not only has squad rotation eased the problem, the globalisation of the Premiership means his actual and potential World Cup opponents, notably Sweden and France, but also Nigeria and, given the number of games in Spain, Argentina, are similarly affected.

Even so, contrary to his public pronouncements Eriksson will next week be cheering on Deportivo La Coruña and Bayer Leverkusen. The semi-final draw means, at worst, only one of his leading providers will be involved in the European Cup final, but he would prefer Beckham and Michael Owen to be relaxing with their families in Dubai in mid-May, not sweating around Hampden Park.

"At the end of the season they can hardly walk," he said. "I need to rest them, not kill them. We will work in Dubai, but not much."