World Cup Qualifiers: How did it come to this?

With two games to go, England's displays in the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup have been a strange mixture of the good, the bland and the ugly. Sam Wallace tries to make sense of them
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James pays the price for howler

The Faria Alam scandal, and Mark Palios's resignation as chief executive of the Football Association, still dictated the mood as Sven Goran Eriksson, the affair's great survivor, launched his third qualification campaign for a major tournament. While Soho Square was still recovering from one of its most bitter internal power-struggles, Eriksson's side contrived to increase the pressure on to their manager by squandering a two-goal lead in Vienna.

The blame fell upon David James, who has not played in a competitive international since, when Andreas Ivanschitz's shot went straight through him for the equaliser.

That was not the only aspect of the game that seemed to go wrong - Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge's partnership down the left no longer looked viable. There was confusion when substitutions were made, with Bridge coming off instead of the injured Steven Gerrard, and suddenly Eriksson was under pressure again.

Most of all the game signalled the return of the "Untouchables" theory - that there were players in Eriksson's side who would be selected regardless of form: that accusation has plagued the Swede ever since.

Goals: Lampard (24) 0-1; Gerrard (63) 0-2; Kollmann (70) 1-2; Ivanschitz (73) 2-2.

England: James; Neville, Terry, King, A Cole; Beckham, Gerrard (Carragher, 82), Lampard, Bridge (J Cole, 84); Smith (Defoe, 76), Owen. Subs not used: Robinson, Dyer, Wright-Phillips, Vassell.

Booked: Pogatetz; Beckham.

Man of the match: Lampard.

...and Sven said:

'I think the worst thing I could do at this moment is to panic, changing five players for Wednesday, taking out Owen, Beckham or whoever else. I will not panic. I will stick to more or less the same formation.'

Game 2 Poland 1 England 2 (8 September 2004)

Silence greets Defoe's arrival

David James dropped and Alan Smith out in favour of Jermain Defoe who looked, for one half at least, like a natural England striker. Given the ball, he swivelled in the area and beat Jerzy Dudek from close range, although this match was famous for the omerta that the players had agreed to keep after what they perceived as unjustifiably harsh treatment following the defeat to Austria.

This was Defoe's first goal for England, and Paul Robinson's first start, but they were not permitted to do anything more than wave at reporters who faced an unprecedented media black-out from the squad. Shame really because it was a gritty performance against a team who came back after half-time with an equaliser.

England lost Gary Neville after 31 minutes to a thigh injury and got their winner when Ashley Cole's cross was tuned in at the near post by Arkadiusz Glowacki. Their complaints about the press coverage centred on the criticism of James. Yet by all accounts the senior players, although sympathetic to the veteran goalkeeper, agreed it was time for him to go.

Goals: Defoe (37) 0-1; Zurawski (48) 1-1; Glowacki og (58) 1-2.

England: Robinson; Neville (Carragher, 32), Terry, King, A Cole; Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Bridge; Defoe (Dyer, 87), Owen. Subs not used: James, Wright-Phillips, Smith, Vassell.

Booked: Glowacki, Kukielka; Owen.

Man of the match: Defoe.

...and Sven said:

'I can understand it [the media black-out after criticism of David James]. There should be a limit to the criticism of individual players. They don't agree with it and are trying to defend the group.'

Game 3 England 2 Wales 0 (9 October 2004)

Becks hogs the Rooney show

The return of Rooney, possibly in the role he should always play for England - behind the two strikers. Defoe's goal against Poland - and Gerrard's injury - meant that Eriksson played the Tottenham striker in a 4-3-3 formation, with Nicky Butt as a holding midfielder. The teenager, playing for England for the first time since breaking that metatarsal at Euro 2004, was as good as Wales were poor.

It should have been straightforward, England looked solid and Lampard scored after four minutes, but Beckham intervened with his own sub-plot.

Soon after he scored with a brilliant, swooping shot from the left side of the box, Beckham cracked a rib in a challenge with Ben Thatcher - and then he sought retribution, picking up a booking which ruled him out of the visit to Azerbaijan.

The England captain's temper was questioned once again but the real drama around the affair did not unfold until his team-mates were in Baku.

Goals: Lampard (4) 1-0; Beckham (76) 2-0.

England: Robinson; G Neville, Campbell, Ferdinand, A Cole; Beckham (Hargreaves, 85), Butt, Lampard; Defoe (Smith, 70), Owen, Rooney (King, 86). Subs not used: James, Terry, J Cole, Wright-Phillips.

Booked: Beckham; Pembridge.

Man of the match: Rooney.

...and Sven said:

'It wasn't easy. Wales defended very well. They didn't let our full-backs play at all. They went back with a lot of players and closed all the spaces. I think we did a good professional performance. We won and that was fair.'

Game 4 Azerbaijan 0 England 1 (13 September 2004)

Honest captain whips up storm

As the team prepared in Azerbaijan - with a horrendous evening's rain forecast for the evening of the match - Beckham went off- message by calling a reporter to tell him that he had not been foolish in picking up the Thatcher booking in the game against Wales - he had done it on purpose.

Beckham claimed that, knowing the rib injury would rule him out of the Azerbaijan game anyway, he "took a yellow" to clear his suspension.

Damned for his honesty, the criticism that Beckham took for the decision to admit to his motives reached a ludicrous pitch. Geoff Hurst hyperventilated about how aghast Sir Alf Ramsey would have been about the whole affair, although, what he had to do with it, no one was sure. Those of a less hysterical disposition pointed out that this was common practice in football.

Against Azerbaijan, playing in a gale, Michael Owen scored from Ashley Cole's cross in a solid England performance in wretched conditions.

Goal: Owen (22) 0-1.

England: Robinson; G Neville, Ferdinand, Campbell, A Cole; Butt, Jenas (Wright-Phillips, 72), Lampard; Rooney (J Cole, 85), Owen, Defoe (Smith, 55). Subs not used: King, James, Terry, Hargreaves.

Booked: Gulivev, Sadygov; Butt, Cole, Rooney.

Man of the match: Owen.

...and Sven said:

'It was difficult to play good football in these conditions because the wind was blowing in all directions. We did a very professional job, and that means in our last two games we have got six points and did not concede a goal. This is very good. I would blame the conditions for the fact we didn't kill the game off.'

Game 5 England 4 Northern Ireland (26 September 2005)

Rooney makes it a happy 50th

Two disastrous performances in friendlies - against Spain and the Netherlands - preceded Eriksson's 50th match in charge of England. After Rooney had to be substituted at the Bernabeu stadium the previous November, to save himself from being sent off, the teenager was the saviour for Eriksson once again at Old Trafford.

This time there was no hint as to what lay in wait for England at Windsor Park six months' ahead. To Lawrie Sanchez's side, Rooney was untameable - he bulldozed past two defenders to cross the ball for Chris Baird's own goal.

Still without a goal at half-time England kept their nerve but the old problems surfaced. A lack of chances created in the first half and another contribution from Beckham that failed to convince.

At the very least, Eriksson had won on this landmark game. The occasion of his 50th match in charge had brought even greater scrutiny to his record - and history was proving increasingly less kind to the Swede.

Goals: J Cole (47) 1-0; Owen (51) 2-0; Baird og (53) 3-0; Lampard (62) 4-0.

England: Robinson; G Neville, Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole; Beckham (Dyer, 72), Lampard, Gerrard (Hargreaves 73), J Cole; Rooney (Defoe 80), Owen. Subs not used: James, Carragher, King, Heskey. Booked: Johnson.

Man of the match: Rooney.

...and Sven said:

'He [Joe Cole] can be the answer if he carries on like this. He was excellent and I don't think he lost the ball in a stupid way once, which he has before. He has finally learned that football is not only about making tricks. It is about choosing when to do it and when not to.'

Game 6 England 2 Azerbaijan 0 (30 March 2005)

Sven wins - and Carlos loses it

Not the avalanche of goals that the St James' Park crowd had hoped for but, typically for England, not enough about this performance was poor enough to invite outright condemnation. They played just about well enough to eclipse an unremarkable team and Beckham's goal was a source of relief for the England captain, who took a long ball from Lampard on his chest just after the hour and to run on goal to score.

A match only really memorable for a rant at Michael Owen from Azerbaijan coach - and Brazil's 1970 World Cup-winning captain - Carlos Alberto, which was as baffling as it was unexpected. Alberto claimed he had read that Owen had promised to score five against Azerbaijan - he never did - and was outraged. So much so that he described England's highest current goalscorer as a "midget".

Goals: Gerrard (51) 1-0; Beckham (62) 2-0.

England: Robinson; G Neville, Ferdinand (King, 77), Terry, A Cole; Beckham (Defoe, 84), Gerrard, Lampard, J Cole; Rooney (Dyer, 77), Owen. Subs not used: Carragher. James. Jenas. Heskey.

Booked: Beckham, Owen; Vugar, Guliyev.

Man of the match: Rooney.

...and Sven said:

'We created a lot of chances, but we were patient and didn't lose confidence, which is the sign of a mature team. I don't know how many goals we could have scored, but we're happy to win.'

Game 7 Wales 0 England 1 (3 September 2005)

Player power - but not on pitch

Were the seeds of England's demise against Northern Ireland sown in Cardiff? The 4-5-1 formation was implemented in order to accommodate Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips as well as Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard, who had all been consulted by Eriksson on what line-up they should play. The players did not want Defoe in the side - he had been ineffective in a dreadful 4-1 friendly defeat to Denmark in Copenhagen the previous month.

The Welsh were much better than the previous year and Robinson saved brilliantly from John Hartson in the first half.

In attack, only Rooney's endless adaptability made the 4-5-1 formation look effective - he can, of course, make any role work. Beckham was much more comfortable in the holding midfield role, although the same could not be said of those players around him.

There was mild criticism of Lampard from Eriksson - uncharacteristic for him - but most of all the England coach was desperate to deny the suggestions that he was giving in to player-power in the selection of his team.

Goal: J Cole (53) 0-1.

England: Robinson; Young, Carragher, Ferdinand, A Cole; Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard (Richardson, 84), Wright-Phillips (Defoe, 67), J Cole (Hargreaves, 76); Rooney. Subs not used: Upson, Kirkland, Neville, Bent.

Booked: Hartson.

Man of the match: Beckham.

...and Sven said:

'I think the midfield, for most of the game, was pretty solid. We're professionals and, if you're asked to play in different positions and different styles, you should be able to do it.'

Game 8 Northern Ireland 1 England 0 (7 September 2005)

When 4-5-1 didn't add up

The darkest day of Eriksson's regime and one of the most humiliating defeats in the 143-year history of the FA. When examining where it went wrong it seemed that every one of England's weaknesses showed up that night at Windsor Park. Rooney's temper exploded, Owen was isolated in the 4-5-1 formation while Ferdinand enjoyed one of his least assured performances against a team below Rwanda in the Fifa rankings. Beckham, in the holding midfield role, was not disastrous but the long balls that he swept forward rendered the roles of Gerrard and Lampard worthless. They could simply not keep up with the attacks he launched.

As the whole thing deteriorated, Eriksson looked lost on the touchline - a man seemingly without anger but also without authority. He took off Lampard and brought on Owen Hargreaves and by then, their team a goal down, the nation realised that this was far from a World Cup-winning side. David Healy's fine finish ensured Eriksson's first defeat in a qualifying game for a major tournament. He cannot afford another.

Goal: Healy (74) 1-0.

England: Robinson; Young, Ferdinand, Carragher, A Cole; Wright-Phillips (J Cole, 54), Lampard (Hargreaves, 80), Beckham, Gerrard (Defoe 75), Rooney; Owen. Subs not used: Upson, Kirkland, Neville, Bent.

Booked: Baird, Capaldi, Johnson; Rooney.

Man of the match: Robinson.

...and Sven said:

'If anyone doubts I am in charge of this team they are badly wrong. My relationship with David Beckham is very good. That is important, he is the captain. But if people think he has other favours they are absolutely wrong.'