James Lawton at the World Cup: Eriksson's new-found defiance can fuel latest attempt to recapture spirit of '66

The manager is showing an edge that was not visible four years ago in Japan
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The Independent Online

In the still acrid aftermath of his war with Sir Alex Ferguson, the language and demeanour of Sven Goran Eriksson invites the most intriguing questions of his five-year reign as England's head coach. They ask if the man who for so long caused dismay with an almost forelock-touching deference to the big Premiership managers has found his nerve - or lost his conscience?

Perhaps he really has collided with the conviction of all those who reach a point where they believe they have nothing to lose, that it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees. Or maybe he is flailing beyond what many would see as the responsibilities of a football manager to the most valuable young talent in English football.

Frankly, there is evidence in both directions in the last hours before England launch their campaign against Paraguay this afternoon.

His fight for the authority to decide on when Wayne Rooney enters this World Cup has driven the master of Old Trafford - the man who, quite alone, plunged in with his £27m bid for the nation's greatest football prospect two years ago - to the point of distraction. For once he hasn't seen even a hint of an owlish blink from the man he assumed he could always bend to his will.

It is an echo from the time 40 years ago when Sir Alf Ramsey infuriated such as Ferguson's predecessor Sir Matt Busby, Liverpool's Bill Shankly and Leeds' Don Revie with his unshrinking demands on their star players in pursuit of the nation's only triumph on the world stage. It is also utterly out of character in an Eriksson who, under pressure from such as Ferguson, made a farce of friendlies with his sparing use of key players in matches which were supposed to be about building the rhythm of a team capable of landing the greatest prize in the game.

Now, with the clock running down on his reputation as an international manager, Eriksson is showing an edge, even a testiness, that has never been apparent before - and certainly was not visible four years ago when England's best chance to win the tournament since 1966 dribbled away before the coach's frozen gaze.

But then there is the other half of that question. Is he playing a form of Russian roulette with Rooney, risking the prodigy's long-term fitness in pursuit of a reason-consuming attempt to leave his £5m-a-year job in glory rather than disdain?

It is here, no doubt, where his critics see a reckless pattern, not so much nerve as a rolling of the dice in what amounts to his last-chance saloon in international football.

The issue was seized on when he made his extraordinary decision to bring the untested Theo Walcott into the squad, leaving himself with only one experienced, fully fit striker in Peter Crouch. One leading figure in the game said then, "I just can't believe he would do that if he wasn't leaving the job at the end of the World Cup. It's as if he is saying, 'Oh, hell, let's just suck it and see.'"

The suspicion that this is now the case in the Rooney situation is inevitable and it is one which would no doubt escalate, perhaps even legally, if Eriksson feels the need to take possibly the biggest risk of his career before the end of the final group game with Sweden in 10 days' time.

What doesn't seem in doubt is that both Eriksson and his team have developed a powerful sense that they are not only competing for the World Cup but something that will almost certainly define for the rest of the lives how they are regarded by the nation and, deep down, even themselves. Unquestionably for the players of whom England now expects there is, as never before, an obligation to prove that they have indeed formed a potentially great generation of England players capable of matching the Boys of '66.

David Beckham will be 35 by the next World Cup. So will Gary Neville. Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard will be pushing into their thirties. It means that some of them, if not all, are playing for their football lives, all their hopes - and all their promises.

It is eight years now since Owen and Beckham went to France trailing glory. Somehow it seems so much longer than that. Owen was dazzling, of course, and if Beckham left the tournament dismayed by his own folly there was no question that he too formed a huge bridgehead of promise.

This week Beckham was talking about his yearning to join the late Bobby Moore on the mountain top of World Cup victory and it is such freely voiced ambition, when set against his inability, for a variety of reasons, to inflict his talent significantly on two European Championships and two World Cups, that brings still another notch of tension to this England campaign.

In the absence of Rooney the captain and his senior team-mates are being asked to look into themselves more deeply than ever before and, who knows, it may also be true of the coach. The result, with Rooney growing large in the background as he proceeds with a recovery that is already speaking of phenomenal physical resilience, could just be a resolve, a bite, that disappeared so calamitously both in Japan in 2002 and Portugal two years ago.

Eriksson's bland resignation in both places was not the least of the national frustration, but this, for whatever the reason, is not the Eriksson we have seen this week. The man who kept in the shadows, who refused to whisper a hint of criticism of his players, who gave Beckham a hold on the captaincy and the team that even the normally diplomatic Bryan "Captain Marvel" Robson has publicly questioned, has given no hint of the old tranquillisation this week.

Here today, maybe we will see evidence that his mood is contagious. Perhaps the time of the platitude is over, replaced by the hard conviction that, with or without the Wonder Boy, this is a team capable of competing at the highest level of the game.

Of course it is. You worry, naturally, about the tactical meanderings, the bizarre injection of Jamie Carragher into the final stages of preparation, and the fear that behind the new and bristling front Eriksson is still riding on hope and speculation. But then you look at his resources and they remain formidable. If Ferdinand keeps his mind on the job for a full 90 minutes, he can remind us of the star of Japan. The defence has the potential to be a fortress.

Beckham, the chameleon, is currently wearing his best coat. His crosses and free-kicks have been reminding us of the effect of mortal shells, and at the end of them there will now be Crouch as well as John Terry. Between them we can be sure that they have given Paraguay's defenders some uneasy nights. Owen is plainly some way from optimum sharpness, but that was also true four years ago on that sweltering day when he pickpocketed Brazil's dozing defence and seemed to have opened up the way to Yokohama and the final. Eight years ago Owen proved that he was an ultimate big-match player and here is a gamble by Eriksson beyond reproach.

Joe Cole is a player he wasn't four years ago, but even then it was one of the heaviest criticisms of Eriksson that he did nothing to break the pattern of Brazil's 10-man second-half control and that Cole might just have done something as adventurous as taking the ball to a defender.

Is this enough to fill the void left by Rooney? That England are hugely diminished by his absence has never been an argument, but then some would say having a coach unable to convey a degree of passion and decision is not exactly a minor handicap.

Now the worst fear is that Eriksson's change of demeanour is no more than cosmetic, that it is as much about desperation as passion. We will know a little more about this in a few hours' time. Meanwhile, we can only hope for a spark that might just put England on fire. Having set Ferguson ablaze, Eriksson might just believe it is not yet beyond him. No doubt it is worth a prayer.

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