When Steven Gerrard was told of the latest master stroke of Sven - to leave out of the England side for tonight's group decider with Sweden an important player who had a yellow card against his name - his reaction was spontaneous and heartfelt. "I hope it's not me," he said.
Of course he hoped that. He is a player surging with self-belief, a beacon of encouragement among team-mates who have mostly looked out of sync and out of place in a World Cup which is producing some stunning levels of achievement. Diplomatically, Gerrard said his reluctance to stand down had much to do with the fact that he missed an entire World Cup four years ago because of injury. He might have added that his first-half performance against Paraguay and spectacular late goal against Trinidad & Tobago - were just about the only reminders that England are supposed to be serious contenders. None of it would, it seems, have done much good. Gerrard, it is reliably reported, will be forced to stand down against the Swedes in a move dictated by caution.
Cautionary move? England need cautionary moves now about as pressingly as a heart-attack victim a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. What England need now is leadership and conviction - a sense that this chance to make a mark on the world game will never come again to the generation of footballers who have been described as golden.
On Sunday, coach Gus Hiddink had four Australia players on cautions as he went into the second group game against Brazil, a no-hope assignment by any shrewd professional assessment. But did Hiddink sacrifice the chances of a shock result against the world champions and keep some of his most physically committed players back for the decisive group game against Croatia? No, he played three of his high-risk men in the belief that a football team need nothing so much as momentum, a sense that every game is a test of their mettle and emerging quality. His reward was a performance which puts the Australians in the best of fighting moods for the Croatian challenge, and to a huge degree because they know that the world champions were required to produce some of the best of their skill to overcome the challenge.
The contrast in thinking here is dismaying. Hiddink lives for the chance of ignition in his team, a spark of uplift; Eriksson goes for another day, another tactical permutation, another piece of chance and speculation.
Certainly you do not have to be knotted by cynicism to suspect that the yellow cards possessed by Gerrard and Frank Lampard were convenient gifts to a coach who, for several years now, has refused to grasp the fact, and act upon it, that when these two players put on England shirts in each other's company they have roughly the working chemistry of the Rev Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams.
We are told that Eriksson will again experiment with a specialist holding player - Owen Hargreaves. This could be England's penultimate game in the 18th World Cup and the talk is still of tactical compromise and adaptation. It is quite stunning.
But then let us be optimistic for a moment - God knows the instinct is willing even in the absence of any tangible evidence.
Let's imagine that in Gerrard's anticipated absence - we cannot be completely sure about this because nothing is written in stone in Eriksson's regime, only in dry and shifting sand - there is a sudden coherence in England's midfield. Shorn though it is of Gerrard's explosive potential, it has a rare look of balance and creativity. There is more than a semblance of build-up. The Swedes are pushed back and probed against, intelligently. Michael Owen receives a ball that is worth more than a pitcher of cold spit. Wayne Rooney's imaginative thrusts are gathered in rather than allowed to blow in the wind. England look like a team, a real team, not an assembly of gifted celebrities. What then? Does Gerrard stay on the sidelines? It is to make a bad joke.
Leaving Gerrard out, after the indulgences granted to the captain, David Beckham, over the years and, it has to be said now, the hauntingly out of touch Owen, would be completely out of Eriksson's character - it would also be bad football thinking. Gerrard is not a natural organiser of a midfield, it is not in the range of his gifts. But his talent is both extraordinary and "coachable", as Liverpool's Rafael Benitez has proved so brilliantly.
You might say that Eriksson, the whipping boy of the media, is merely protecting his team from the disaster of losing Gerrard for the first knock-out game against either Germany or Ecuador. But it is to miss the central point. If England are to have any chance of progress, they have to find a vein of form and confidence. They cannot expect the pitiful football they produced for most of the matches against Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago to counter effectively the momentum of Germany and the strength and confidence of the South Americans, who have come down from their high altitude without much sign of fear or self-doubt.
So what should Eriksson have done? He should have tackled the Gerrard-Lampard issue, he should have expanded the midfield, brought in the committed passer of the ball, Michael Carrick, and balanced the fact that Gerrard and Lampard, while representing threats to any defence, are never going to arrive at any sweet understanding of compatible roles as conventional midfielders. This would place a burden on a Rooney still working for true fitness, but already he is a hope and a talisman of almost mystical proportions.
Owen, by comparison, is suffering a nightmare of ineffectiveness that cannot alone be attributed to the failures of England's stone-age approach. Not every ball directed at him has been snow-laden. Against Paraguay, both Gerrard and Beckham delivered telling ground passes that the old Owen would have devoured. Shortly before he was substituted against Trinidad, he misdirected a header at the far post that before his latest injury he would have accepted as the most generous of gifts.
The idea that the dropping of Gerrard is not a decision but a compromise is simply inescapable. How we categorise the command for England to work on passing and "patience" before the third match of a World Cup is an entirely different matter. One hint was perhaps provided by several ex-internationals of vast experience when told of the development. They laughed out loud. But there was little evidence of genuine mirth.
This is maybe a risky point in the wake of Lampard's weekend assertion that if, in 20 years' time, he is caught criticising the performance of an England team he will feel entitled to be taken out and shot. This suggests he will not be seen dead in a television studio when his playing days are over, a career decision that will perhaps be easier for him to make than those of all his predecessors who had to get by on rather less than the current rate for the job at Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile, the hope has to be that the tide of criticism - if it had not flowed so vigorously there would surely have been a case for wholesale charges of dereliction of duty - can indeed be turned back. How this will happen is not so easy to say, but one starting point might be an understanding that football men of the greatest achievement have known pressure and criticism that make the current sniping at England performance seem like gentle advice.
Brazil, for no greater crime than a somewhat arthritic start to the defence of a title won five times, are currently being broiled and caricatured across their vast and excitable land. Italy's coach, Marcello Lippi, a hero after a fine victory over Ghana in the opening match, is now mindful of the Edmondo Fabbri and Enzo Bearzot treatment in the wake of his team's near disaster against the United States on Saturday night. Fabbri was attacked with rotten eggs at Rome airport after losing to North Korea in 1966, Bearzot was spat upon after a slow start to the 1982 campaign.
Bearzot had the perfect remedy. He won in the end, and quite brilliantly. Criticism, like praise, comes and goes. Achievement is for ever. It is one of quite a few things England seem to need to understand, preferably in the course of the next few days.Reuse content