The damning lie of England's record crusade

Drained Owen may yet survive to resume his partnership with restored Rooney as Eriksson guards against the long-ball tendency
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The Independent Online

All hail Sven Goran Eriksson's record-breakers! In making their best start to a World Cup campaign for 24 years, England have equalled a post-war record - also held by the same master coach - of eight successive wins. Three more and they will not only be in the semi-final but will have established the best sequence of all time. All of which tends to confirm the notion that there are lies, damned lies and football statistics.

The previous record, for what it is worth, was established in the first decade of the last century by knocking over the amateurs of Austria and Hungary with scores such as 11-1. Happy days. In the modern era, it seems, the most anyone can hope for is not so much a cricket score, even against Brian Lara's Trinidad & Tobago, but a tennis set: a 6-1 or 6-0 against an obliging Iceland or Jamaica as a false augury before setting off to a summer tournament at which reality sets in with the uncompromising speed of an Andy Roddick serve.

So is the game, set and match up for Sven? Well, not yet, despite all the hard labour so far, most depressingly in Thursday's attempts to see off the smallest country at the finals (population 1.3m, the equivalent of Hampshire). But there are hard decisions ahead for a manager who has only recently shown any relish for taking them. Hauling off a torpid Michael Owen before the clock struck the hour in each of England's opening games was an encouraging sign. Indeed, Eriksson's substitutions, unfairly criticised against Paraguay, had exactly the desired effect last Thursday.

The difficult question is whether the uplifting effect of half an hour from Wayne Rooney and Aaron Lennon can be replicated over a period three times as long against Sweden on Tuesday. Owen's lack of sharpness and consequent draining of confidence (however much he protests to the contrary on both counts) illustrate the physical problem for a player return-ing from injury. Rooney managed 30 minutes on adrenalin, having lifted the predominantly English crowd and the team simply by removing his training top.

Even if he convinces the coaching and medical staff that he is now ready to start ahead of Owen, he would be forming a virtually new partnership with the unpredictable Peter Crouch. They have previously managed a total of 31 minutes on the pitch together, in two short spells after Crouch's introduction as a substitute.

Rooney and Owen was the established partnership before either cracked a metatarsal, and restoring it would remove the temptation of hitting so many long diagonal passes from deep towards Crouch's head. Even when those balls were accurate enough on Thursday (rarely, until David Beckham's in the 83rd minute), the tactic barely troubled a central-defensive pair employed by Wrexham and Gillingham. Sweden's Olof Mellberg, who has faced Crouch many times on the Aston Villa training ground as well as various Premiership pitches, would hardly be kept awake at nights by the prospect of doing so again.

Yet does Owen deserve another chance and could England risk two strikers who are both so short of time on the grass? The alternative that has been considered is a 4-5-1 formation, in which Crouch would be the only striker fit enough for the lone role. If he stays, the crosses must be delivered from a much narrower angle, which the eventual return of the under- estimated Gary Neville, who is still not fit, would facilitate. Jamie Carragher, solid character though he is, lacks the pace and the wiles to overlap in the same manner.

Lennon seems certain to remain an impact substitute rather than a starter, since his position on the right of midfield is held by a revered member of the squad. Demob-happy and suddenly adventurous or not, Eriksson is not about to drop his captain. Nor would furthering Beckham's fledgling career as a full-back be a bright idea against as wily and experienced a winger as Freddie Ljungberg.

The midfield balance is still not quite right, though it is ironic that the wide-left position, which caused so much angst for so long, has for a year or more been the least of England's worries, thanks to Joe Cole finally fulfilling the promise in which some of us continued to believe. The one thing Cole does not do is go down the line and cross with his weaker left foot, but there were promising signs against Trinidad & Tobago that his namesake Ashley will fill that role adequately as full fitness returns. In defence, John Terry was once more outstanding, and will need to be again in opposition to Henrik Larsson and either Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eriksson's favourite player, or Marcus Allback.

Held in their opening game, however, and scraping past Paraguay only in the final minute, Sweden are in as poor a shape as their pre-tournament form suggested. Trinidad & Tobago's astute coach, Leo Beenhakker, had some typically intelligent points of comparison, after coming up against both sides here, such as: "Players like Ibrahimovic and Crouch invite the early long ball, but at the moment you [England] are eliminating some important midfield players. Both have to demonstrate a little more patience when they meet stronger, better teams, using the good guys you have in midfield."

Stylistic similarities between England and Scandinavian countries have led to many stalemates in the past, and a Swedish record against Eriksson's adopted country of 10 unbeaten matches since Bobby Charlton, Roger Hunt and Martin Peters were on the score-sheet. Not so much talk of the boys of '66 and all that, though, in the dispiriting week gone by.

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