Group Six is beginning to look like a ramble in the park after that first stumble in the Viennese woods and if Wayne Rooney was flying any higher he might have made his own way here to the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Group Six is beginning to look like a ramble in the park after that first stumble in the Viennese woods and if Wayne Rooney was flying any higher he might have made his own way here to the shores of the Caspian Sea. So why would anyone question the charmed regime of Sven Goran Eriksson after the dismissal of the sad, bloodless Welsh last weekend? The best reason is that England are no strangers to this kind of place in the clouds. Twice under Eriksson they have descended from them only to implode, hopelessly, in the critical phase of major tournaments. Why did England do that? Was it a shortfall of talent? Hardly, if you believed the coach.
All the way to Japan in 2002 and Portugal this year Eriksson extolled the virtues of his "world-class" players, but when it mattered most England simply disintegrated as a team, and that reality cannot be so easily wiped away just because Poland and Wales have been beaten and Rooney more than ever is looking like the player of his epoch. Now, be sure, Rooney will be the fuel of fresh England dreams of world conquest, and there is some compelling argument behind this. No doubt the player is a jewel, but sometimes a diamond requires careful polishing and if it is true he was mostly magnificent against the Welsh no one, and least of all Eriksson, can afford to ignore the implications of one terribly flawed moment.
It is one easy enough to recall. Rooney had the ball to the left of the Welsh goal and Michael Owen was in perfect position to receive. Instead, Rooney tried to score from a near impossible angle. Owen was irate, disbelieving. So was the captain, David Beckham, who would soon enough give us the best and the worst of his contribution to the England team. A moment of inexperience, a rush of young blood from Rooney? Perhaps. But there is another worrying possibility, and it is one that may just go to the heart of some of England's most disappointing performances. Maybe it was also partly a failure of the culture of Eriksson's England. Maybe it was a symptom of the belief that in this team individual image and glory are what count most; score a goal, make yourself untouchable, at least for a game or two.
Maybe it is why Owen argued absurdly over the ownership of the Frank Lampard goal that flew off his heel. Perhaps this is why Beckham has always made such a banquet of his moments of glory, why he has rushed so frantically into the lens of the cameras when he has scored, with growing infrequency, goals, it must be said, much less distinguished than the one which saw off the Welsh on Saturday - and balanced out still another parody of proper leadership when he made his bizarrely petulant tackle and ruled himself out of Wednesday's game here against Azerbaijan.
These suspicions would be less weighty if Rooney's moment of selfishness had not been part of a pattern. The fact is that Owen, who for so long has represented the soundest of professional values and who on Saturday made a brilliant return to some of the best of his form, and his strike partner Jermain Defoe were both guilty of similar, if less spectacular, examples of hogging the ball when a simple pass to a team-mate was plainly the most potentially telling option.
Again, you have to question the motives of the culprits. Yes, we know a degree of self-obsession is implicit in a striker. Predators tend not to be the most clubbable types. But ultimately a pro is a pro, and no one embraced this more completely than the great Pele. He had vast skill but his glory, and his reputation, was built on a glorious humility. Whatever he did, he did it for the team.
This surely should be the model for Rooney. Already he has shown an astounding aptitude for transfiguring the performance of his team-mates. Against Turkey in a European Championship qualifying game in Sunderland he lifted England so profoundly it was almost impossible to believe that he was a mere 17 years old. But if he dwarfed his team-mates, his game also embraced them - as it did so spectacularly in Portugal last summer.
Rooney was unplayable against Switzerland and Croatia, and before he was replaced by Eriksson he panicked the French defence in the opening game. However, if there was a single moment when he announced that here were the makings of a truly great player it was surely against Croatia when he rose up in the penalty area and, with instant, perfect vision, headed the ball into the path of Paul Scholes. Here was a quintessential moment of team play and also, you had to hope, a defining one.
Thus far Rooney's lapse against the Welsh can be isolated as a rare blemish, and certainly there was no shortage of compensation. His game was mostly a sublime essay in the beauty and the point of football: subtle movement, brilliant control and an innate ability to be in the right position to receive the ball.
With such a player, any coach might reasonably dream of conquering the world, but that's what it entirely remains, a fantasy, if certain disciplines are not powerfully enforced.
Last Saturday night one questioner failed to keep the exasperation out of his voice when he asked Eriksson if he did not feel that Beckham's drawing of a yellow card was irresponsible. The coach dismissed the question, and said we should talk about Beckham's goal. So did one cancel out the other? If you happened, as a hugely rewarded professional footballer of widely acknowledged skill, to strike a ball beautifully into the back of your opponents' net, did it mean that your piece of rank indiscipline, as the captain of an international team, no longer warranted censure? Eriksson said that Beckham's offence wasn't important. It was merely a "pity" that it happened.
Maybe, you might speculate, Eriksson took Beckham on one side and gave him a massive dressing-down, told him that his behaviour was unacceptable and would not be tolerated in the future. Yes, maybe he did that, but then you have to ask whether he also gave that speech last year when, in the game lifted so hugely by Rooney, Beckham won a yellow card - and a suspension - in almost identical fashion. If he did, plainly the message did not get through.
The suspicion, in some quarters at least, must be that as England again rise to the top of a qualifying group to which they have plainly brought superior forces, some basic issues remain unaddressed.
One of them is the serious problem of a captain who loses his head. The other is that the world's best young player might just be in danger of acquiring a particularly bad habit in a team game, that of thinking primarily of himself. Against the likes of Wales and Azerbaijan these are flaws always likely to be less than critical. But it will be different when England come out of the clouds again and face up to the vital truth that goes into winning a big tournament. This could happen here beside the Caspian Sea this week. However, somehow the conditions just don't seem right. Reality is, after all, nearly two years away.Reuse content