Partners in prime: Gerrard and Beckham sweep middle England

Destination Germany for the Eriksson odyssey
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The Independent Online

You could sense Sven Goran Eriksson's frustration. It was a bit like asking Hercules, less than midway through his 12 labours, would he mind awfully taking a mid-summer break before capturing alive the Erymanthian Boar.

How the Swede would have relished the opportunity to move directly to Munich for the next World Cup qualifying game, a fixture where an England triumph is so rare that it seemingly exists only in the mists of football mythology (it was actually 36 years ago in Nuremberg). Instead, after a fifth consecutive victory for England under his stewardship, the coach must wait 12 weeks for the resumption of hostilities with that avowed enemy, punctuated only by a friendly 18 days before that, against Holland at White Hart Lane. And once you are on a roll, the fear is that if you embark on a sojourn it could all come to a grinding halt.

After five consecutive victories Eriksson is displaying classic withdrawal symptoms. He cannot wait for the players of the Premiership clubs to reconvene and begin pre-season training.

"Before that, I don't know what to do," Eriksson said, before departing Athens' Olympic Stadium in the wake of England's 2-0 defeat of Greece in Group Nine. "To prepare, maybe I will come into the office." As he is seated there, at the FA's headquarters in Soho Square, perhaps doodling the names of possible personnel he has in mind for the Holland and Germany games, he will be only too conscious that despite what he describes as a "dream" start, the labours are becoming increasingly severe, and that he can afford no mistakes in his tactical thinking.

So far, the coach has found that, rather like the man who performs the country's second most impossible job, the Prime Minister, you can get away with an awful lot when the opposition is modest and in some disarray. And the Greeks, for all their deft touches, presented only a peripheral threat.

You could, for instance, again name Emile Heskey to start as a left-sided midfielder when he is palpably uncomfortable in that position. Though the Liverpool man toiled diligently ­ and occasionally with reward, notably in his contribution to Paul Scholes' opening goal ­ his presence was as discordant with the general air of harmony as Geri Halliwell would be to a sombre church chorus.

Heskey's replacement, Steve McManaman, would have scarcely endeared himself to Eriksson either. The world's best, of whose number the Real Madrid player clearly believes he holds associate membership, do not scatter defenders to the four winds with their wiles only then to hoist their cross unforgivably high and wide.

It would be a surprise if Nicky Barmby, though predominantly right-footed, was not reintroduced on the left at some stage against Holland, and there should be an invitation, too, to the admirable Bayern Munich midfielder Owen Hargreaves.

Eriksson will also have to adjudicate on Martin Keown's international future, assuming Sol Campbell returns from injury for the game. The Arsenal veteran did not appear entirely in accord with his younger team-mates. True, Rio Ferdinand may have committed his customary aberration when England held only a one-goal advantage ­ and it was just as well that Ashley Cole was alert enough to thwart the substitute Stelios Giannakopoulos with a splendid block. But overall, the Leeds player produced another authoritative display, and it is not merely his years that commend him to the England coach.

And what of Phil Neville, ostensibly merely a replacement for his injured brother, Gary, but who has undergone revitalisation since the horrors of that night in Charleroi against Romania nearly a year ago? Some of his positive play, augmenting the midfield, was pleasing to witness. "In the second half he was excellent," agreed Eriksson. "The first goal started with him. I asked the [wide] midfield players, Beckham and Heskey, to push their wing-backs up. Then, of course, that gives a lot of space to our full-backs, so they can support from behind."

With Germany in mind, such areas are ones for the tuning fork, rather than calling for a restringing of the whole piano. "It would be very difficult for me to have a start any better than this, even if we haven't played France and Argentina, who I think are currently the two best sides in the world," Eriksson said. "The players have kept to exactly what they were asked to do, and performed to their maximum. They were very bright, very calm, and showed intelligence."

He was asked whether it was the best group of players with whom he had ever worked. "Phew, that's a big question," he replied. "All I will say is that it's a very interesting, strong group. It's amazing when you think that Owen and Gerrard are only 21, you have Scholes and Beckham both 26. They are already world-class players and they are so young. I was lucky to come in at the right moment. I didn't know that there were so many good, young players."

Modesty restricts him from adding that their international development bears his hallmark. What the coach has succeeded in doing, within a solid framework, is the encouragement of his players to express themselves freely while accepting the responsibility to cover for each other. The fact that no fewer than nine different players have scored for England under Eriksson is surely indicative of that culture of liberation. Beckham, Scholes and Gerrard, in particular, have discovered an almost intuitive understanding, despite the latter playing for a rival club.

Gerrard's club-mate Robbie Fowler can appreciate what he brings to England. "To me, he's got everything," enthused the Liverpool striker. "The frightening thing is that he's still a young lad, with years ahead of him on the international scene. People talk about Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira, but I think Steven Gerrard can be classed in the same bracket. He's been outstanding for England and all season for Liverpool. People say you don't reach your peak until you're around 27. If that's the case, he's going to be universe class, never mind world class, by then."

While Gerrard's claim to an automatic England midfield berth was being confirmed, Fowler himself was a revelation. He was as likely to be found prompting openings for Owen with penetrative long-range passing as he was playing the role of natural predator. "I've done that a lot this season at Liverpool," he said. "I've dropped deep and created chances. I think I've always done it, but people have started to notice it more because I've done it in bigger games. I think I'm playing as well as I have in my career, even though I'm still only 26."

As for his partnership with Owen, they have both given the lie to any assertion that they cannot perform satisfactorily in tandem. "At the start of the season, people were saying we couldn't play together because we were too similar," he said. "But recently people have noticed how we can. I think we complement each other well. Michael's a great player and his speed is something else."

It will need to be to disturb the German defensive equanimity on 1 September. Though Germany are possibly at their most vulnerable at home for many a season, and their World Cup qualifier performances have been generally unconvincing, the England victory which will be required to give Eriksson's men any hope of automatic qualification in Group Nine will truly examine the coach's expertise. Yet, from a man who tends not to proph-esy, there is an almost Keeganesque tone to his optimism.

"Anything is possible," he insisted. "If we want to fight to qualify directly we must win that game. If Germany beat England in England, why can't we beat Germany over there? Then it could be a question of goal difference. But let's take a holiday first...."

Hercules sought immor-tality by completing his 12 labours. As he reclines, topping up his tan, Eriksson may reflect that he is already well on his way to a similar distinction. In its own way, inflicting defeat on Germany is at least on a par with killing the Hydra of Lerna.

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