Sven Goran Eriksson's successor could hardly have hoped for a smoother path to the Euro 2008 finals after England were yesterday given one of the most favourable draws of the qualification campaign, with the toughest opposition coming from Croatia and Russia. As the race for Eriksson's successor also gathered pace, Portugal's Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari made public his interest in the job.
A group that pairs England with some of the minnows of European football - Estonia, Macedonia and Andorra - as well as a potentially fraught trip to Israel, even gave Eriksson, who has looked increasingly despondent over the last two days, cause to joke "at least I did a good job today".
But it was his old adversary Scolari, whose Brazil and Portugal teams have eliminated England at the last two major tournaments, who took centre stage yesterday.
The 57-year-old Brazilian, who led his country to a World Cup triumph in 2004, is not a man given to ducking the difficult questions and, with the opportunity to rule himself out of the running as Eriksson's successor, instead said that he considered the England manager's role as a "very, very attractive job". The Independent reported Scolari's interest in the England job yesterday and later in the day he weighed his words carefully to send the right message to the Football Association.
Guus Hiddink, another front-runner for the job, was spotted in London this week, although the Dutchman has said he was in England only for the shopping. The three most serious non-English contenders to emerge in a selection process that is far from decided are Hiddink, the PSV Eindhoven manager, Martin O'Neill, whose return to management will be decided by the health of his wife, and Scolari. The FA chief executive, Brian Barwick, has given no indication that he is close to a final decision.
Scolari, whose contract with Portugal runs until July, said that the decision by the FA to announce Eriksson's departure after the World Cup finals could be "great for England". With the team already prepared to "disband" after the World Cup, Scolari said, it would "create the chance for friendship, complicity, love and respect in the team and improve their performance". Yesterday may also have told him that the sooner he learns English and gets rid of his interpreter, the better it will be for his chances of getting the job.
Hiddink spoke for the first time about the England job when he said yesterday that no contact had yet been made by the FA. The PSV coach has already had a taste of the interest that surrounds the job with the media attendance at his training session having doubled since the announcement over Eriksson's future. "It is a little bit distracting, but I am used to it," he said. "It is not always nice to see what is happening [to Eriksson]. I don't know [how I would react], because I have not experienced it."
Of the sides that the new
manager will face, only Croatia have any real pedigree and England defeated them 4-2 at Euro 2004 and 3-1 in a friendly at Portman Road in August 2003. "England should be rather happy about this draw, it could be much worse," Eriksson said. "You can look at the less famous teams and think it will be easy but it never will be. The smaller football nations are becoming better and better but I think whoever comes after me will be happy with this draw."
The Sweden coach Lars Lagerback, whose team will face England in the last game of the group stages of the World Cup finals, defended the record of his friend Eriksson - "you probably haven't had such results since 1966" - and said that he did not believe the announcement on the England manager's future would have an effect this summer. "What I have seen when we have played England is that Sven has a great relationship with his players so I don't think it will affect them," Lagerback said. "Whoever replaces him will find it difficult to match his record."
The fixtures will be decided at a Uefa meeting in Zagreb on 23 February, by which time the FA will hope to be close to identifying the man they want to lead them to Euro 2008, which takes place in Austria and Switzerland. They have avoided some of the most awkward groups which include Group A, where Scolari's Portugal have to play Poland, Serbia & Montenegro, Belgium and Finland, as well as Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
The highest-profile trip England will make in their Euro 2008 qualification campaign will be to Israel where, in the past, Premiership players have refused to travel because of safety concerns. In 2001, six Chelsea players chose not to play the away leg of a Uefa Cup tie against Hapoel Tel Aviv and Manchester United's Champions' League match against Maccabi Haifa the following year was moved to Cyprus.
The FA has not made any final decision on where that match will be played and the location of the game is likely to be dictated by events in the region. Israel are seeded fourth in the group and include in their squad West Ham's Yossi Benayoun and Yaniv Katan as well as Bolton's Tal Ben Haim.
The draw means a return to Macedonia, where English fans were banned from travelling for a Euro 2004 qualifier in September 2003 which England won 2-1. In the 2-2 draw at Southampton, David Seaman brought his England career to an end when he conceded Artim Sakiri's corner.
Croatia pose the greatest threat with Rangers' striker Dado Prso and Shakhtar Donetsk's Dario Srna among their leading players.
As the USSR, Russia made the 1988 final where they lost to the Netherlands but they have not qualified for this year's World Cup.
Andorra pose the least threat, having lost all 18 of the European Championship qualifying matches they have played. Their coach, David Rodrigo, said he had not ruled out a surprise, although the biggest challenge for England may be filling Barcelona's Nou Camp with English fans should the Andorrans move the game to that stadium to cash in on travelling fans.
Estonia are coached by the 35-year-old Dutchman Jelle Goes and have Arsenal's reserve goalkeeper Mart Poom in their squad.
It's official, fans can drink to success
England's World Cup group matches have officially been classified as "low risk" in what is thought to be a victory for anti-hooligan measures ahead of this summer's tournament, writes Matthew Beard.
The fixtures against Uruguay, Trinidad & Tobago and Sweden are deemed by Fifa and German police to pose the lowest security threat, although that will change if there is any outbreak of disorder.
The categorisation is in contrast to the equivalent matches during Euro 2004, which were considered "high risk" due to largely untested anti-hooligan measures.
The main benefit to England fans is that for low-risk games there is no alcohol ban and they will even be served in their seats with beer in plastic beakers. The choice will be limited to the American beer Budweiser, brewed by the tournament sponsors, and a non-alcoholic beer from a German brewer.
The exclusion from venues of German beer has caused uproar in a nation with a proud brewing tradition and as a result a bigger range of beers will be offered in the official fans' parks where games will be screened.Reuse content