When Football Association officials attempted to discover last Monday what the criteria would be in sorting the European wheat from the Concacaf chaff, Fifa told them no decision would be made until a couple of days before the draw in December. "Yes, I would be disappointed not to be seeded," Sven Goran Eriksson admitted; partly because he remembers what happened at his two previous tournaments, where finishing only as runners-up meant a harder knockout tie against group winners.
Four years ago, although England were able to beat Denmark comfortably in the second round, the outcome was a quarter-final against Brazil rather than Turkey. Similarly, at Euro 2004, they would certainly rather have met Greece's artisans than the home country, Portugal.
All that is known is that two of the eight prime slots will go to the holders and hosts, who happen to be the sides Eriksson has identified as the ones to beat: Brazil for "their quality in midfield and attack"; Germany for "their mentality". If Argentina are also entitled to expect a top seeding, that leaves a maximum of five for other contenders, including England, France, Holland, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and - if they come through the play-offs - Spain and Turkey. But if the same criteria as 2002 are adopted, with world rankings and the three previous tournaments taken into account, Mexico and the United States will have a strong statistical claim.
The system is flawed in each case. Why should performances even eight years ago, let alone 12, have any relevance? In 1994, Bulgaria were World Cup semi-finalists, and Wimbledon, Sheff-ield Wednesday, Queen's Park Rangers and Coventry were in the top half of the Premiership. Times change. Secondly, Mexico, though they did well at the Confederations' Cup last summer, have had their usual easy ride in Central America, and on current calculations would - absurdly - be the third most deserving seeds in the world.
A Fifa spokesman has nevertheless suggested that no great changes are envisaged; hence the importance of England's games with Poland and Argen-tina. The result against the Poles, with 10 players unavailable, was therefore all the more welcome, as was the performance, putting into perspective some of the more hysterical reactions since defeat by Northern Ireland. Eriksson has had faith in his squad reaffirmed, and learnt among other things that the team is 1) able to thrive without David Beckham; and 2) much more solid with an identified holding midfield player.
While Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick (both injured) and Scott Parker (ignored) cursed their luck, Ledley King seized the day with all the opportunism he had shown while deputising in his more natural position for John Terry against France at Euro 2004.
The head coach has only four more games to convince himself of the best midfield formation, starting against the Argentinians. He intends to field his strongest side, and while admitting that "ideally" everyone should play in their club position, he was understandably impressed with King. So was Frank Lampard, so convinced there was a taller Claude Mak-elele covering his back that he repeatedly surged forward in best Footballer of the Year fashion, unrecognisable from the stumbling figure in Cardiff and Belfast.
Eriksson did admit late on Wednesday night that he had been partly responsible for those two poor team performances, and half a one in Copenhagen, by using players who were "not in 100 per cent form", while the squad had collectively "lost a little bit of our spirit to work together, run for each other".
Well covered at centre-back and midfield, his squad is less blessed at full-back and in attack, which means that every report of even a minor injury to Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Michael Owen or Rooney over the next eight months should cause sweat to break out on the ice-man's brow. Seeing his head in a noose in the country's best-selling daily newspaper worries him less, partly as "I don't know if some of the critics reflect the English fans. But I've never ever met one. Maybe some of you think I should resign tomorrow, [but] we won the group, we have a good team. And I have absolutely no intention to do it".
That debate can be laid to rest until high summer, when we will see whether the seeds flower in the Black Forest or fall on the stony ground of theRuhrgebiet.Reuse content