Sven Goran Eriksson has come out with his most upbeat prediction yet about England's prospects of finally emulating Sir Alf Ramsey's World Cup winners of 1966. "I think we will win it," he told reporters at the squad's training camp on the Algarve.
It was the first time the normally cautious Swede had used the word "will" rather than "can" or "could". Being Eriksson, he then followed that bold declaration with qualifications about injuries and bad luck.
But if not quite carrying the conviction of Ramsey's famous prediction of 40 years ago, it was confirmation that the England camp are over the demoralising shock of Wayne Rooney's broken foot, which continues to heal faster than expected. There is now reason to believe the squad's most inspirational player will be ready for the knockout stage, though Football Association sources are bemused by reports that he could make the opening game against Paraguay a fortnight on Saturday.
The players returned yesterday with their wives and girlfriends from a week of low-key training at the Vale do Lobo resort. They reassemble in London tomorrow and will be joined by Arsenal's Champions' League finalists Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell, plus Liverpool's Steven Gerrard, who was excused duty last week after playing 57 matches since beginning his season with a Champions' League qualifying match on 13 July.
Only the Arsenal pair and Gerrard's FA Cup final colleagues Jamie Carragher and Peter Crouch have not had the benefit of an extra week's rest since the end of the Premiership campaign, something that Eriksson fought hard to obtain and which has fired his optimism about England's chances. Four years ago, he and his staff were shocked by the results of tests done on players ahead of the tournament in Japan. "They were exhausted, more or less all of them," he revealed last week. "We were sitting down saying 'what shall we do?' You couldn't rest because it was three weeks before the World Cup started and if you push them, they'll be even more tired. I've been fighting for four years to have a winter break or one extra week's preparation. The extra week will help a lot."
Asked if he would now match Ramsey's achievement (which came after nine weeks' preparation) he replied: "I think we will win it, of course," adding: "But you know you have huge opponents as well. No more injuries, a little bit of luck, referees... 1966, that says everything about how difficult it is to win the World Cup. Everything must be in place. Everything must be almost perfect."
Rooney's injury at Chelsea three weeks ago was the precise opposite of a perfect start to preparations, but the past week has engendered a new mood of optimism. The young striker's improvement under treatment by Manchester United's medical staff, and Michael Owen's progress towards fitness have even eased some of the doubts over the folly of selecting only four forwards, including the untried Theo Walcott.
Owen will play in Thursday's B international against Belarus at Reading - his first game, apart from 29 minutes as a substitute, since New Year's Eve - and Walcott is expected to appear at some stage in the second half. That would be a more gentle introduction for the teenager than being thrown on in one of next week's two friendly matches at Old Trafford, against Hungary (30 May) and Jamaica (3 June).
The only distraction from the World Cup effort is the matter of where Eriksson will be working after it is over. In Portugal he faced questions about returning as coach to one of his former clubs, Benfica, with whom he claimed to have had no contact. But he did admit to lingering disappointment about the way in which his enforced resignation from the England job came about. "The only thing I'm a little bit sad about was the timing. I think that should have happened in another way."Reuse content