James Lawton: Chances of glory in Germany slip from slim to none

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The Independent Football

Whatever you think of his chances, it is no longer possible to avoid the truth about Sven Goran Eriksson: the more he changes his team, the more he stays the same. Depending on how strongly you feel about what he is doing - or rather not doing - to England, the picture has to be of a straw man blowing in the wind, a flibbertigibbet, or, worst of all, a fraud.

The alternative view? He is a genius, someone who can break every rule that has ever been laid down in the building a football team and still retain the potential to win the greatest challenge in the game, with or without a miraculously revived Wayne Rooney.

You take the latter view if you believe that football is truly an ultimately funny game. On the other hand, you may want to borrow the line of the boxing promoter Don King when he was asked about a certain long-shot proposition. "It's got two chances," said King. "Slim and none, and Slim just left town."

Either way, for critical opinion it is a time to be counted in these last steps to the World Cup. You can argue the technical details of Jamie Carragher's performance, as yet another candidate for the "holding midfielder" role, against the sadly pallid Hungarians on Tuesday night as long as you like - and apparently the BBC analysts did it ad nauseam back in the studio - but surely the need is to address the broader point.

It is not whether Carragher is technically and instinctively equipped to play in midfield - everyone except Eriksson, and not least the player himself, knows that he is not. The real debate is about what Carragher's selection said about Eriksson's state of mind - and preparation.

If the Brazilians lost Ronaldinho, the Argentines Juan Roman Riquelme, the Germans Michael Ballack or the French Thierry Henry, would their coaches now be overhauling their entire tactical approach and personnel? Of course not. So why is it happening with England? It is the Eriksson way, and now it promises to unravel in a third straight major competition.

He makes the classic pattern of team development, of honing players and performance, seem not like a basic ingredient of any recipe for success but something akin to acquiring the Holy Grail.

When the former West Ham and Liverpool full-back Julian Dicks, who wore his hair in the Mohawk style, was signed amid grave misgivings, the manager was was asked, by one critic, to "talk us through the haircut". Rather more relevantly, he might now ask Eriksson to talk us through the Walcott decision.

The Carragher "experiment" was bizarre, no doubt, as has been the obsession with Rooney's injury, right up to this week's astonishing resolve to have the player fly to Germany for a couple of days, then return to Old Trafford for his final, decisive scan. But however you question the logic of Eriksson's reaction to the Rooney mishap - and it has plainly offended the basic imperatives of a team game - and his desperate tinkering so near to the off, it is the Walcott business which is impossible to comprehend.

The boy flickered across the Old Trafford stage like a nervous firefly. What else could be expected? Owen, a big-match performer if ever there was one, is plainly far from match sharpness, but if his time is limited his temperament is huge, and plainly he is worth the gamble. But selecting one fit, experienced striker for the squad was astonishing folly, and Peter Crouch's goal underlined the reality of this after Steven Gerrard spent 45 minutes proving that he is no more a forward player than Carragher is a midfielder (as opposed to arguably England's best pure defender.) This was on top of the reminder that Owen's predatory instincts are best served by the company of an authentic target man.

Meanwhile, and with certain honourable exceptions - not least the BBC's pungently opinionated Alan Green - a droning debate is conducted. Can Carragher play the holding role? Can Gerrard play with his back to the goal? Does Theo Walcott represent a thrilling initiative or risible aberration? Should we play 3-5-2, 4-1-4-1, 4-4-2? It is almost beyond belief that such basic questions are being asked so near to the moments of truth.

Eriksson juggles formations and players and invites all of English football to play a fool's game of unfathomable calculation. The witless Ian Wright draws licence payers' money to join in. He applauds Gerrard's dive against the Hungarians and makes barely decipherable contributions to the Carragher discussion. The hugely influential Alan Hansen chooses not to say the unsayable. It is that England's World Cup bid has become a joke.

Why the vow of silence? Surely it cannot be out of fear of an outrageous punchline? Maybe some of us should check the airports and the railway stations. Just to confirm that Slim has indeed left town.

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