Sven content with his place in the world

Road to Germany 2006: Coach feels squad can live with the best after five straight wins and the maturing of Cole
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The Independent Football

He did not exactly leap from the rain-lashed dugout screaming "Bring 'em on!", but in his own inimitable way, Sven Goran Eriksson was quiet confidence personified on Wednesday night after England had completed the second of two straightforward victories in five days.

Dispatching Azerbaijan in similar fashion to Northern Ireland, albeit with half the number of goals from twice as many chances, his team had completed a fifth successive World Cup win to follow the initial late slip by David James in Austria. Eriksson said he would happily continue the qualifying group next week instead of September, and now considers the squad as competitive as any in the game.

All of which sounded a different note to that struck before the Azerbaijan game, when the coach nevertheless made more sense with his cautious assessment of the prospects ("I'd be happy with 1-0") than the tables listing England's biggest-ever vic-tories, from 13-0 downwards.

Despite being mocked in big black headlines, he was proved correct in his analysis of the Azeris' 8-0 defeat by Poland on the same day as England cruised past Northern Ireland: everything had gone the Poles' way, whereas England would strike the frame of Azerbaijan's goal three times and find their leading scorer, Michael Owen, playing like a man with two left feet - left being his weaker side.

While nobody studying Wednesday's visitors to St James' Park would ever claim it was just like watching Carlos Alberto's Brazil, neither are they Luxembourg, Kazakhstan or San Marino (joint record in this campaign: played 18, lost 18, goals against 61). In fact, their ability to steal a point here (1-1 against Wales) and there (0-0 v Northern Ireland), plus Poland's stubbornness and the instinctive passion of British underdogs has ensured a certain level of interest in what could otherwise have been a tiresomely drawn-out Group Six.

That is the way of international football since the breaking down of the Soviet empire created so many countries, and tiddlers like San Marino and Andorra were encouraged to swim with the sharks.

But what are worse: one-sided cup matches or the sort of friendlies endured against Holland and Spain? Which set of spectators had better rew-ard for their money and travelling time: those in Newcastle on Wednesday or those at Villa Park for Holland's visit?

England's priority in organ-ising the current campaign, duly achieved, was always to avoid playing any games after the end of the domestic programme, which means that Eriksson's season was effectively finished before March was. Nice work if you can get it, at something in the region of £80,000 a week. His squad will now play two low-key tour games in Chicago and New Jersey immediately after the Champions' League final, against the United States and Colombia respectively, then a friendly in Denmark on 17 August.

Eriksson is resigned to taking a number of fringe players to the US, whether or not an English club feature in the final, though he hopes that David Beckham and Owen's Spanish league commitments will enable them to fly out for the second of the two games.

Although criticised by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger for arranging any tour at all, the Football Association are adamant that trips like the American jaunt are important for political and commercial reasons as well as sporting ones. Making friends and influencing the sort of people whose votes determine where World Cups are held is part of the realpolitik of football, while the money is not to be sniffed at.

The playing consideration is that opportunities to experience conditions and opponents outside Europe are harder and harder to come by. Since being thrown up against the varying styles of Argen-tina, Nigeria and Brazil in the heat of Japan at the last World Cup, England have left Uefa territory only for South Africa, and in the past two seasons, Japan in Manchester have been the only non-European opposition of any sort.

Almost three years on from the capitulation to the Brazilians, Eriksson believes progress has been made, claiming with some justification to have a more mature and more technically proficient squad, less inclined to give the ball away.

In that respect, the most positive aspect of the week was confirmation that Joe Cole now understands the priorities of football at the highest level and looks capable of marrying his unquestionable individual skills to the team ethic.

Patience was required in both matches when the team went to the dressing room at half-time with the scoreline somehow blank. At Old Trafford, it was necessary to emphasise that Beckham needed to stay wide and stretch the opposing defence instead of overcrowding a congested centre-midfield.

At Newcastle, it would be nice to think that more runs behind the defence to the byline were suggested, the diet of high crosses cooked up for Owen and Wayne Rooney (neither of them the tallest of strikers) having quickly become jaded.

Those who feel that Shaun Wright-Phillips is much better equipped to provide that service than Beckham will have found the latter's improved performance (and well-taken goal) a mixed blessing. Wright-Phillips and his supporters must hope he is fit to play against the US in the captain's absence. Owen will need games and form early next season, especially as a stupid handling offence means he misses the first of the two banana-skin games in Cardiff and Belfast early in September.

Poland, assuming they win in Azerbaijan in June, will go to the top of the table, and Eriksson believes they will stay there at least until England play their game in hand at home to Austria next autumn. If that is so, then Wednesday 12 October will loom as large in the calendar as did Wednesday 17 October 1973, when a supposed clown of a Polish goalkeeper denied England a place at the World Cup finals. It is being assumed that Eriksson's team would still qualify this time as one of the two best-placed runners-up, though that is not certain.

Overall, however, whether looking at the scoreline or the quality of performance, the Swede is entitled to his quiet satisfaction. "The two performances were very professional, very high quality," he said. "If we can go on making performances like that and hopefully have no injuries, I think we can compete with the best in the world." But the natural caution is never far away: "First we have to qualify."

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