England out to share nation's upbeat mood

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The Independent Football

The road to Germany and the 2006 World Cup begins now and it does so with all the usual earnest promises and wistful ambition.

In Copenhagen, ahead of England's first match tonight in a season they hope will end with the World Cup final in Berlin, both Beckham and Sven Goran Eriksson repeated their conviction that, next summer, this team can conquer their own previous inadequacies and the rest of the world along the way. As has so often been the case in the Eriksson reign, it is hard to put a finger on the weaknesses of a squad and a manager that shows such outward calm, although the fear lingers that those flaws are there none the less.

Whether a struggling Denmark side are capable of revealing any of them at the Parken Stadium tonight is debatable and the biggest challenges facing Eriksson and his captain yesterday were not those likely to strike panic into the dressing-room. Beckham hesitated only when he was asked to extol the virtues of Andrew Flintoff and his team-mates, which he managed well despite, he added, not being "a big cricket man". Eriksson was caught up in a dispute of a more bizarre nature.

The saga of Alan Smith's withdrawal from this friendly had become so baffling by yesterday that, having offered his version of events, the England manager desperately attempted to draw a line under the affair by stating simply: "I take the blame." From the floor came the cry: "What for, Sven?" Eriksson peered solemnly over his glasses and replied unhappily: "I don't know."

But the Manchester United striker's appetite for international football, or lack of it, is hardly a concern for an England manager who, in all likelihood will not include Smith among the four strikers he takes to Germany next summer should Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Jermain Defoe and, perhaps, Peter Crouch all be fit. Eriksson felt sufficiently confident yesterday to name his team more than 24 hours before they take the field tonight.

He has not yet reached the levels of insouciance of Jose Mourinho and neither, you expect, will the England manager have much use for mind games next summer but his starting XI have become so settled that they fear only injuries over the next 10 months. The team that start tonight will be - barring injuries or a breakthrough from someone hitherto unnoticed - the same one, Owen excepted, that start the World Cup.

The Real Madrid striker is suspended for the World Cup qualifier against Wales on 3 September so tonight Eriksson gives a start to Tottenham's Jermain Defoe, who will be auditioned for the role in Cardiff alongside Rooney. Four games stand between England and the World Cup draw in Leipzig on 9 December, but such has been Eriksson's mastery of tournament qualification that an assumption has been made that the real test begins next June. Beckham, 30, is one of his Swedish manager's most faithful disciples and, when asked to contemplate life beyond Eriksson, he summed up the task as "one hell of a job".

He said: "I believe we have the best man for the job. I don't mind where they come from. People think it's important to have an English manager, but the manager we have at the moment is the best."

The England captain made the point that those four players in the team from Chelsea and Liverpool - John Terry, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Steven Gerrard - now have, after last season, the experience of winning major trophies for their clubs. Success is no longer the preserve of Eriksson's dwindling contingent of Manchester United players past and present, although the question of Owen and his future at Real Madrid will be impossible to ignore should he not get a move away this summer.

"I think it's important that Michael plays football, but the decision is down to him," Beckham said. "Even last season, when he didn't play as many games, he still looked very sharp. But he needs to be happy, playing football. It will be his decision. I hope he stays at Real Madrid because having him there in the squad, and in the team, he scores goals."

The suspicion is that even if Owen were sitting on the bench of La Liga's humble newcomers Cadiz, never mind that of Real Madrid, Eriksson would still have trouble dropping the player. So life goes on under the Swede where consensus is always found and tempers never lost. Eriksson was asked when the last time was that he had shouted. "I don't know, maybe at home," he said, sensing the opportunity for a joke that proved uproariously popular. "Private business," he added.

As usual in a World Cup season there is a glow around Eriksson's team, optimism has been rediscovered. Second in their qualification group with a game in hand, England are in a far stronger position than Denmark, who are fourth in their group, 11 points behind the leaders Ukraine.

It was put to Eriksson yesterday that the most strident criticism of him has come, of late, from Robbie Fowler who, in his autobiography, said that England would never win the World Cup under their current manager. Not only did Eriksson refuse to bite back, he even said that he would never completely close the door on a player - not even Fowler. England must hope that this calm proves their strength next summer because the manager who would scarcely raise his voice in his own house knows no other way.

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