James Lawton: England handed easy ride while Scots rue luck

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The Independent Football

Sometimes You have to shed a tear - yes, all right, maybe it's a small one - for Scotland.

Their power to self-destruct remains undiminished, but no one can say that they have had too many helping hands. Certainly as England, and possibly their less than totally committed coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, were given a largely hazard-free invitation to the 2006 World Cup yesterday, the Scots could be excused another bout of paranoia. The gods do seem out to get to them these days, a trend which was only confirmed by their grouping with Italy and the potentially dangerous Norway and Slovenia.

Their embattled manager Berti Vogts' only comfort was that he couldn't quite legitimately resurrect the quote of Ally McCoist when the Rangers striker heard the pool draw he and his team-mates faced in Mexico in the 1986 tournament: Denmark, then a power in the game; Uruguay; and Germany. "I've heard of a group of death," moaned McCoist. "But this has to be the group of certain death."

So it was. The best Scotland could glean was a point in a sterile game with Uruguay - a memory not enhanced by the fact that the South Americans were reduced to 10 men after 55 minutes when Jose Batista tried to separate Gordon Strachan from his legs.

Naturally, Eriksson had much less reason for angst after skimming by any sinister threats lurking outside the pot of the top seeds.

Despite the revival inspired by Mark Hughes, Wales should be no great threat and Northern Ireland would be more of a worry if they learned how to score. Azerbaijan will be an exhausting trek, but should hold no terrors. Poland are ever further removed from the great days of Tomaszewski, Gorgan, Lato and Gadocha. Austria are also in a trough.

All of that means that if Eriksson does decide to fulfil his contract he should be a cast-iron favourite to score his third straight qualification for a major tournament.

That will look nice on the career portfolio, but it will mean less if he doesn't improve on the sense of team development that was at times so painfully absent in the quarter-final of the last World Cup in Japan...and in the sometimes alarmingly faltering drive to next summer's European Championships.

What the World Cup qualifying programme offers most of all is a series of matches in which Eriksson could just possibly approach in the classic fashion of team-building, rather than the wholesale distribution of walk-on parts. Joe Cole's recent progress at Stamford Bridge certainly cries out for a serious run in the England team. He has a creative instinct that calls out for proper investigation - and encouragement - over a sustained period. That kind of investment is vital if the generation of Beckham, Owen and Gerrard is to acquire anything more than the ersatz lustre of eternal promise.

The Republic of Ireland contemplate the jaws of French brilliance and tricky re-engagement with Swizterland, their recent conquerors on the barred road to Portugal. They have some reason to complain of the luck of the English.

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