James Lawton: Despite the evidence, history could come to Eriksson's rescue

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The Independent Football

It doesn't help that they appear to be operating from the middle of a disordered family picnic in the Black Forest - some of which in the past have been so stressful respectable burghers have walked off into the trees and quietly hung themselves - but World Cup precedent does back England's belief that they can rebuild their prospects here tonight.

However, it is also true that football history is shaped by extraordinary effort and commitment - a zone of rarefied achievement which calls for a degree of personal sacrifice currently not abundantly evident in the England camp.

However, a circus of family and friends and body guards and paparazzi and all the other attendant and inevitable discords and distractions apart, indifferent starts have rarely in themselves been an obstacle to eventual glory.

If they were, two of the most talented squads here, champions Brazil and their predecessors, France, might already be rebooking their departure flights.

Despite the "heavenly" goal of Kaka against Croatia, the Brazil coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, has to persuade his alarmed countrymen that the team will soon dispel the impression that they are a little too old, a little too jaded, that Ronaldinho is feeling the burden of carrying both his club, Barcelona, and his nation, and that former hero Ronaldo is currently playing with bags of cement around his waist and his boots.

Double that pressure when you consider the plight of France's Raymond Domenech after the goalless ordeal against hard-running but scarcely intimidating Switzerland - France's fourth straight World Cup finals game without a successful strike.

It means that Parreira and Domenech are now sharing the same crumpled hymn sheet with England's Sven Goran Eriksson.

If there is a difference, it is that Eriksson has made some of his own problems with a squad selection that, of the trio of major football nations who most plainly have to sharply improve on their opening performances, gives him least room for manoeuvre.

There is no question England were dismal when acquiring the points against an initially petrified Paraguay last Saturday in Frankfurt. The excuses, which mirrored almost exactly those England offered when they failed so completely to match 10 Brazilians in the second half of a quarter-final on another hot afternoon four years ago, were embarrassing. But then when players like the captain, David Beckham, and Joe Cole talk up their potential to recover their rhythm against heroic little Trinidad & Tobago, again history comes to their aid.

Trinidad, under the wise and passionate urging of the veteran coach Leo Beenhakker, gave the tournament its first surge of authentic passion when, with 10 men, they held Sweden to a goalless draw.

But can this Caribbean lightning strike twice in successive games? The record says not. After the United States, no better considered than Trinidad, beat the England of Tom Finney and Wilf Mannion in 1950, they were roared on to the field for their next game against Chile. They lost 5-2.

The record of World Cup ugly ducklings turning into authentic champions, if not the most elegant of swans, is much more common. "The Boys of '66" were dismissed after their opening game with Uruguay; Jimmy Hill, the Gary Lineker - and Alan Hansen - of his day, said that not even Alf Ramsey could win with "this lot."

In 1982, Italy failed to win a group game, went through to the second round as second qualifier, to Poland, and were considered nothing less than inept. The coach, Enzo Bearzot, was spat at by an Italian journalist. In the end, Italy were triumphant, beating Germany in the final in Madrid, having earlier ambushed a much lauded Brazil.

Four years ago, Brazil struggled against Turkey in their first game, Rivaldo receiving a fine for one of the most squalid acts of "simulation" seen on the game's great stage.

So, yes, England can say that the essential truth about the Paraguay game is that they picked up the points - and that, given the talent in the squad, improvement is inevitable. Yet under Eriksson is there really a capacity to grow strong at the broken places? This is the most worrying question.

The pattern with Eriksson is that there is no pattern; it is crazy paving, wings and prayers, and a squad selection that is beyond rational analysis.

Michael Owen rages about the insulting 56 minutes he was given in the Paraguay match, and that anger can be felt beyond his wounded pride. Many felt that Owen was only slightly less of a gamble than Wayne Rooney and on the evidence of Frankfurt they were undoubtedly right.

However, if you decide on an Owen plainly short of match sharpness, if you give him one of just four striking places, along with a teenager who has never played big-time football and a Rooney whose ambition is no less than to defy medical science, you are obliged to persevere with the bed you have made for yourself. Eriksson had one foot in, one foot out, when he sent on Stewart Downing, a winger, in place of Owen, with young Theo Walcott sitting on the bench as bemused as some chorister beamed into the back room of a gambling saloon.

Today, logic, at least what passes for his own, says Eriksson must stick with Owen.

There are other imperatives for England against Beenhakker's happy warriors. One is locking down into that mode of concentration which has always marked the progress of teams with the will to be champions. Martin O'Neill is already on the record with his scepticism. He was shocked by the awarding of "family time" in the wake of the Paraguay game. He thought there were other demands on a team who had started one of the great challenges of their careers so unpromisingly. For the moment at least he carries more weight than England's historic optimism.