Eriksson calm as England wait for world to take shape

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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson says that he will not be nervous when he takes his seat at 7.30pm this evening in the Leipziger Messe hotel to find out the three teams that England must navigate their way past to reach the knock-out stage of the World Cup finals next summer. But even the nation's most passive manager will know that his side's performance against these three opponents will determine how history judges his time in charge of the England football team.

As well as almost five years of the Eriksson regime, it has taken one new Football Association chief executive, a 13-month, 10-game qualification campaign - not to mention seven friendlies - to reach the point where England will, at last, be placed at the mercy of the World Cup draw. Waiting to descend upon Germany will also be 100,000 England fans, whose travel plans for the summer will be dictated by the numbered balls plucked from the bowls in the ceremony hosted by the supermodel Heidi Klum in Leipzig tonight.

All in the lap of the gods? After five years with Eriksson's style of management, the English football nation has become accustomed to giving in to fate. The worst-case scenario could hardly be more daunting than the pairing of England with France in the first game of Euro 2004, but the real danger this time lurks in pot three, where the Netherlands team of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Deco's Portugal and Andrei Shevchenko's Ukraine would provide Eriksson's team with their most dangerous opponent of the first round.

Of the 24 teams that they could be drawn against in the group stages, England have at some time in the past faced all but eight in either friendly or competitive fixtures. Although Eriksson is never one who prefers to seek out the devil in the detail, it is clear that the emergent African nations represent the least well-known element of the draw with four out of the five - Angola, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo - never having faced an England side before.

It would be reassuring to think that while Eriksson's endless tour around the Premiership continues in the new year, his scouts at the FA will pay close attention to the African Cup of Nations in Egypt to assess the new threat from that continent. If the draw pairs England with an African side, as it did with Nigeria in 2002, there is a good chance that the 1 March international friendly will see an African opponent invited to play at Old Trafford.

Speaking in Lisbon on Wednesday, Eriksson said that he still believed his side were one of five who could win and that they had the ability to triumph in Berlin on 9 July.

"I think we showed in the last two tournaments, that we are good," he said. "We didn't win them, I know. We only reached the quarter-finals. But how we went out of those tournaments - the difference was all or nothing. This time we have one week more of preparation, which I think will mean a lot more to the squad. The team is much stronger now than 2002 - much, much stronger, even than 18 months ago."

Eriksson said that as far as the African teams were concerned "at the moment I know almost nothing about them", before adding: "But if we are to play them we will find out everything." He conceded that it was probably something "in the blood" that made South American sides so technically superior, but pointed out that in the 3-2 victory over Argentina in Geneva last month England created more chances.

The three teams that are drawn in England's group will, if Eriksson's side do not progress past the group stages, unquestionably be the last three opponents that he faces as manager of the national team. His future after the summer hinges on an opposing set of probabilities: fail badly and the FA will have to find a way to pay him off, succeed and there will be no shortage of offers to allow him to bow out honourably.

His successor may even be found among the 31 managers who will also watch with interest as the teams are drawn tonight, with the PSV Eindhoven and Australia coach Guus Hiddink known to have supporters within the FA.

If the Dutchman achieves as much with Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell's Socceroos as he did in taking South Korea to the semi-finals in 2002 Hiddink may find himself pursued by not only the FA but Old Trafford too.

The FA is well aware of the need for England to foster a good relationship with the host nation and is hopeful that the location of group games will allow it to do that, although there has been no confirmation of reports that the team are already destined to play in Stuttgart, Cologne and Leipzig. There are certain host cities that would be best avoided in the interest of good relations between rival fans, with Nuremberg top of that list.

It was not Eriksson's style to proclaim, like Sir Alf Ramsey once did, that England will win this one and do not expect him to flinch even if the Netherlands are drawn in England's group. But after two major tournaments, and a lot of different formations, you can be assured that deep down he will care: this time his job is definitely on the line.

* The World Cup draw will be broadcast live on BBC2 at 8.15 tonight. John Motson is the Beeb's man in Leipzig, so expect world-class streams of statistics