Friendlies do not have to be as meaningless as this

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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson was as sanguine as ever, and why not? Ledley King had come from nowhere, where he will almost certainly return quickly enough after a gratifying shoal of favourable headlines, and another complex touch-line shuffle had been performed.

One of Eriksson's favourites, Danny Mills, had won another cap at full-back, to the bewilderment of a World Cup-winning specialist in that position, George Cohen, and Jamie Carragher, rated by Cohen as arguably the best technical defender in the land, filled in for the midfielder Nicky Butt for four minutes at the end of a friendly game which, like all of its type under Eriksson, had pitched off a crumbling cliff face into pure irrelevance.

Joe Cole, a rare young English player of genuine invention, got another 45-minute stab at proving that he can be trusted on the big stage, which he plainly wasn't 20 months ago against Brazil when the team screamed for somebody who could do something that wasn't utterly predictable. What could the kid do in a team that was being taken apart piece by piece?

David Beckham was granted a chance to perform in the centre of midfield, something which he has frequently pined for in an England shirt, but in this he too was hindered by rapidly changing cast. Not unreasonably for a man who now spends his working life knocking the ball around with such as Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Raul and Zinedine Zidane, he plainly didn't see the point of bursting a vein.

In a few months' time England may well play Portugal again in the quarter-finals of the European Championship but this wasn't so much a dress rehearsal as a bit of languid busking. We are constantly told that friendlies don't matter, and clearly they don't in the mind of the England coach. So what's the solution? Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president who is not universally seen as a guiding star of the world game, proposes a limit of five substitutes, which on the face of it looks like a step back in the right direction, but the reality is that the Eriksson approach looks to be beyond legislation.

It is as though Eriksson believes that everything will be all right on the night. In his case this has proved to be so many times, but they have been lesser nights; on the big one on which the ultimately succesful coaches always have to deliver, can he be so confident? The evidence of the last World Cup says no.

Friendlies do have a point. They are not about preserving the kind of impressive win-loss ratio Eriksson has built up over the last three years. They are about performance, and the building of a team.

Men like Cohen and his World Cup-winning team-mate Nobby Stiles, for example, are convinced that England's triumph in 1966 was based most powerfully on something that happened months before the great tournament opened.

It was a 2-0 victory over a powerful Spanish team in Madrid - in a match that was as friendly as a street fight down in the Barrio Chino. On a bitterly cold night England glowed. They found a way to play which sent confidence into every corner of the team. The Spanish coach, Jose Villalonga, said: "The English coach is a great innovator. Tonight we saw a performance that would have beaten anyone in the world." England carried that testimonial to the World Cup and won. Not because of the generosity of a rival coach, but because they knew what he had said was true.

What England carried away from the Estadio Algarve on Wednesday night after the 1-1 draw with Portugal was impossible to analyse. It was without pattern. For Portugal, Rui Costa reminded us that he is still a wonderfully creative player. Figo unfolded some wonderful moments while winning his 100th cap, and if Portugal failed to produce a cutting edge, their play had a rhythm and purpose which spoke of the familiarity which comes with regular opportunities to hone their game.

That is what Portugal's World-Cup winning Brazilian coach Phil Scolari knows he has to fashion if he is to climb another peak. You have to make a team and build performance. You have to believe you're playing real matches.

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