Eriksson backs King and looks forward to English rule in June

He could scarcely have put it in starker terms: those who despair at the progress made by the England team, at Eriksson's failure to harness the prodigious talent of our golden generation into a truly great side, are in fact inhabiting an entirely different reality to his own. It has never been Eriksson's way to challenge his detractors in public - he barely seems to know who they are anyway - instead he employs a much more damning form of riposte to their criticism: he affects not even to comprehend it.

It is a sobering thought as England complete their successful World Cup qualification campaign against Poland tonight in a match that may count for nothing but has come to signify a great deal. It is a personal conviction that the victory over Austria on Saturday was not as desperate a performance as some, especially in the BBC's coverage, may have suggested and, above all, the result was the one aspect that really mattered. Most importantly, this was an England team repairing itself after their humbling in Belfast and the football nation's darkest defeat of the decade.

Now that some of the shame of that defeat has been assuaged, and a World Cup finals place secured, a familiar, troubling serenity has settled upon Eriksson. After the humiliation at Windsor Park, painful though it was, we witnessed the transformation of the England manager into a man who feared for his reputation and his legacy and responded by making a brave decision to drop Rio Ferdinand. Yesterday, he had returned to his default setting - a man baffled by criticism and untroubled by the finer details of his job.

One of the less taxing tactical questions tonight is whether to select Tottenham's Ledley King, a centre-back, as a holding midfielder ahead of three players - Phil Neville, Jermaine Jenas and Alan Smith - who perform the role for their clubs every weekend. Even before you consider the omission of two defensive midfield specialists from the squad - Scott Parker and Danny Murphy - it was a leap of faith for Eriksson to continue to play King in a position he claimed the 25-year-old had filled for "one season" at Spurs.

Not quite one season, it was pointed out to Eriksson, but just 12 games. A small point that he may not consider vital among the countless decisions he has made over a 10-match, 13-month successful qualification campaign but worth noting none the less - especially if King finds himself promoted to the first team next summer. A dozen games, six months, a season - whatever. These are just not the details that play upon Eriksson's mind.

What matters to him more than ever, his multi-purpose justification, is that his team have qualified for the World Cup. "We did the job anyhow," is how he likes to put it. There is no denying that it is a compelling logic, that this England team should be congratulated for easing through qualification with a game to spare while other great European powers such as France and Spain conspire to make such heavy work of the job. It is, however, what lies beyond next summer that holds so few certainties.

Questioned on England's defeats against the very best international sides - Brazil, France and Portugal were just three examples - Eriksson reminded his questioner that he had "forgotten [the successes against] Germany, Argentina and Turkey". However much the progress of this enormously talented England team appears to swerve between the good and the bad, Eriksson is unshakeable in his belief that they have saved their best for next June.

"I was convinced that we should qualify - we are now qualified and once again, I am saying that if we don't have too many injuries, we will have a very good World Cup," he said.

"One of the reasons is that we have an extremely good football team which, unfortunately, we haven't shown every time. This team with not too many injuries is a better team than in Portugal [Euro 2004], a better team than in Japan [World Cup 2002]. And in Japan and Portugal, we went out quarter-finals because of almost nothing. That is one of the reasons I am convinced."

He looks certain to start with Shaun Wright-Phillips tonight on the right, Joe Cole on the left and the third Chelsea man of the midfield, Frank Lampard, freed to attack by King's presence. Rio Ferdinand will be back in the starting line-up in place of Sol Campbell - which begs the question whether Eriksson will drop him all over again if his three centre-halves are fit for the Argentina friendly on 12 November. And Wayne Rooney is back in attack.

"I always try to make them play good football but if you just say '[here's] the ball and good luck', I think I do very bad work," Eriksson said. Good or bad work, Eriksson's labours are distinctively his own. The conviction this manager has that his team will peak in June seems to be one of the few beliefs that stir his unreadable emotions: tonight would be a good moment for his side to start proving him right.

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