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Eriksson gains options for bigger tests to come

The balance of power may not be shifting in European football quite yet, but the scales are wobbling. Taking a lead from Greece's extraordinary triumph in Euro 2004 this summer, the continent's also-rans have found the self-belief to challenge the old order.

A glance at the tables and results in the qualifying competition for the 2006 World Cup shows how some of the big guns are being spiked. Italy, having lost to Slovenia, scraped home 4-3 against Belarus on Wednesday night, France have dropped points at home to both Israel and Ireland, while Portugal could not beat Liechtenstein.

One group, however, in which the favourites are obliging the bookmakers is England's. Wednesday's thoroughly professional 1-0 victory over Azerbaijan in Baku strengthened the hold of Sven Goran Eriksson's team on top place. After three wins and a draw from four matches - three of which have been on foreign soil, leaving three home games plus visits to Northern Ireland and Wales - the travelling fans can start thinking about a summer lunching on bratwurst and flammekuchen in 2006.

England have not lost a qualifying game for the European Championship or World Cup since the 1-0 defeat at home to Germany in 2000, which proved to be the last game for both Wembley and Kevin Keegan. The last qualifying defeat away from home, a 2-1 loss to Sweden in Stockholm in 1998, has been followed by an away run of 10 victories and five draws.

It helps, of course, to be drawn in a comparatively easy group. While Poland are making some sort of a challenge in Group Six, England won in Katowice without much difficulty last month. As for their other opponents, Eriksson's men would have beaten Austria but for 20 minutes of madness in Vienna, Wales and Azerbaijan have been outclassed and it is hard to imagine Northern Ireland doing any better.

Being drawn against moderate opponents, however, is a double-edged sword. It may make qualification easier, but does it prepare a team for the bigger tests ahead? England's problem in recent times has not been qualifying, but living with the best at the major tournaments. One benefit is that it does allow you to experiment in a competitive environment. While Eriksson clearly had his mind set on playing with three strikers against Wales last Saturday, Michael Owen believes the coach might not have repeated it on Wednesday had England been facing more formidable opposition.

"Playing away is 100 per cent different from playing at home, especially in international football," Owen said. "If we went to a big tournament I don't think the manager would play with three strikers in every game. I think the manager knows his best formation and his best team. It's exciting at home when you can score a few goals and there are three strikers. But, by and large, the manager would go with his normal 4-4-2, with obviously Wayne Rooney playing behind the other striker. That's the way we've played big games."

Eriksson said he had kept the same line-up on Wednesday because it had worked so well against Wales and he wanted to keep changes to a minimum. However, he said it would not necessarily be the shape of England teams to come.

"It depends on the strikers who are in good form or not," Eriksson said. "It depends on who we play and it depends on where we play. But we know we can play normal 4-4-2, we know we can play diamond 4-4-2 and we know that we can play with three strikers, so it's good to have options. And we can start a game one way and finish it in another if it's necessary."

Eriksson said that Rooney had told him after both games how much he had enjoyed playing "in the hole" behind two more advanced forwards. "He has the ball a lot in that position - more than if he plays up front," Eriksson said. "Sometimes he can get away from markers and he has more time to pass the ball. It's normal in that position. I think he's doing it very well - and he's defending very well as well."

Eriksson was clearly relieved to be talking about football again. He was asked if he had ever expected to be tested in his current job as much as he had been over the last week as a result of David Beckham's words and deeds. "I don't know if I've been tested or not," Eriksson replied. "I don't feel like that. Something happens and it always seems like it's the Third World War going on. But if we are a big football country it's like that."

At least Eriksson, as an international manager, is able to enjoy spells out of the limelight. "I don't think David has a quiet life," Eriksson said. "He has press and cameramen around him all the time, whatever he's doing, even in Spain."