James Lawton: Captain's miracle goal disguises Eriksson's road map to disaster

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The Independent Football

The plot is so eerily familiar now. England, appearing in still another formation and with new faces in key positions, play as though they are wearing blindfolds. Yet they inch forwards towards a World Cup that all logic says is beyond, if not some of their talent, their organisation, their preparation and their tactical wit to compete with teams of the quality of Argentina, Brazil and Spain.

As they meander on towards the goal that you have to believe is a fantasy of the most outrageously unsubstantiated kind, the question will not go away.

Could it really be that Sven Goran Eriksson, the £5m-a-year man who has broken every rule in his building towards a mostly superb tournament, who has left himself critically, almost comically exposed in that area of the field where trophies are won and lost, the strike positions, will walk out of English life alongside Sir Alf Ramsey, as the only other coach in the nation's history to win football's greatest prize? There is no change here in the belief that all the rules of football say it cannot happen - Eriksson cannot be the conqueror in Berlin on 9 July because he has done so many things wrong, and continues to produce a football team which is utterly out of sync with the best we are seeing here in this thrilling German summer.

Reflect for a moment on Eriksson's journey so far: a wretched performance against Paraguay; a grotesque effort against Trinidad & Tobago that was redeemed only by a goal from Peter Crouch which was based on a sly and but effective foul; a near melt-down against Sweden; and now this - a one-shot victory over a tiny country which woke up, jarringly, to the discovery that they were just three games away from a World Cup final and sharing a pitch with some of the most lionised performers in the history of the game.

The result was a performance that carried none of the vigour and the hope and the vein of skill which broke the hearts of Poland, the team England struggled to master in the pre-tournament qualifying rounds.

However, England remain in this tournament almost despite themselves. The first half was excruciating, a fact which neither Eriksson nor his assistant, and successor, Steve McClaren, seemed in the mood to dispute as they surveyed, with stricken faces, their handiwork from the bench. We had the same picture in Japan four years ago when England's last challenge for the great prize dwindled so pitifully against the 10 men of Brazil. Now the problems were being provided not by aristocrats of the world game, but Ecuador, playing in their second World Cup and, despite their pre-match protestations, plainly suffering from a bad case of stage-fright against England's celebrity players.

What could Eriksson and McClaren do? They didn't try anything at the interval except maybe pray for a miracle. That, given England's showing in the first half, was probably the most practical option. Unbidden or not, the miracle arrived. It was England's goal. In the circumstances it was probably inevitable that David Beckham scored it.

One of the obvious moves back when Eriksson and McClaren were wearing the looks of men contemplating outright disaster was to pull off the fireproof captain, but then this is not possible in the current England regime. Pictures of the Queen might fall off the walls of government buildings. Big Ben might stop. However, the point of his retention - while the electric Aaron Lennon itched to get on the field - is that he still has one weapon left in his armoury.

It is, of course, the dead-ball kick. He produced one of his most subtle efforts, a free-kick in the 60th minute - and that, give or take Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and the late substitute Lennon, was the essential difference between England and one of international football's junior nations.

The irony could not have been more spectacular. Any straw poll you might have conducted would have surely said Beckham's presence was the most dispensable as England strained to dominate a game that was by common consent the worst in this 18th World Cup. He showed no pace, no bite, no hunger to do anything more than play harmless balls without pressure, without challenge.

And then, of course, he scored; he was the hero again, and when he was replaced late on by Lennon he left not as a virtual non-contributor, other than when struck home his trademarked free-kick, it was to cheers rather than an embarrassed silence.

It left us with one faint case to be made for a continued journey by England as the serious teams start to present themselves on the road to Berlin.

When Lennon did come on yesterday he showed the pace that had unsettled Trinidad & Tobago so deeply last week, he opened up possibilities where none had existed before, and as he went about his work, with so little time but such huge incentives, you did have a vision of how differently this England team might present itself at the showcase of the world game.

Lennon gave England width and bite, a prerequisite of any winning team - and of course there were other ingredients to mix into a team of potential balance and heightened ambition. This was an intoxicating thought to go along with the evidence that Rooney may just have the restored physical ability to yet make an extraordinary impact on events here. He showed moments of thrilling aggression, and there were times he moved like the muscular thoroughbred who was becoming so familiar in the days before he was struck down at Stamford Bridge at the end of last season.

But then how do England machete their way through the undergrowth of Eriksson's indecision? How do they breathe as a team who are not pre-ordained to follow a route, and bow to a playing establishment, which has been set in place for so long through the Eriksson years?

The coach was awash with the usual platitudes after his latest survival. But when he talked you couldn't get rid of that picture of him on the touchline as the first half rambled to a chaotic close. You couldn't forget all the times this team has promised to deliver the greatest achievement and yet, at the vital moments, fallen down because of a failure of leadership - and even the basics of team cohesion.

No doubt we will be reminded of a certain reality. England, again, are in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. But if this is accurate, is it the deepest football truth? Are they not simply making up the numbers while they await their first formidable opposition. In the wake of Beckham's life-saving goal, it is still the most haunting question of England's campaign.