James Lawton: Strong-man Rooney can lift England to the mountain top

England have this night to remind them of the talent in their blood and, at times, in their reach
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The Independent Football

Roll up, roll up, roll up. See the Sven Goran Eriksson show. It's spectacular. It has the Amazing Rooney. It has Michael Owen - the best escapologist since Houdini. You will be carried into another world. You just won't know what is going to happen next.

After the extraordinary 3-2 victory over World Cup second favourites Argentina, it is possible to write up the billboards in the most positive way - just as it was at the Olympic Stadium in Munich four years ago.

But then maybe this second time around it is wise to slip in a note of caution.

The Swedish Iceman has, after all, warmed out hearts before but too often with dismaying consequences. It means, says the message from the bones rather than the exhilarated blood-stream, that only one thing can be said confidently in the after-glow of an unforgettable night at the Stade de Genève.

England can go anywhere from here. They can go to the mountain top and truly compete when it matters most, or they can slide back into another breakdown of cohesion and self-belief, as they did in the Far East and Portugal when all the strength and the promise of England dwindled to nothing in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and the European Championships. They can be the England we saw against Argentina or the one that turned into a rabble against Denmark and Northern Ireland. They can touch the stars - or they can scrabble in the dirt.

Whatever happens, though, they do have this night to remind them of the power and the talent in their blood - and, from time to thrilling time, their reach. For the moment it is a glory, but then another ultimate failure in a major tournament will surely turn into the kind of ferocious rebuke which always accompanies under achievement at the highest level of sport.

It is, however, also true that in the continuously stunning Wayne Rooney there is a new dimension since the false dawn of Munich four years ago. Eriksson is right when he says that the 20-year-old has the capacity to change any football horizon, but if we do not remember what happened after the 5-1 slaughter of Germany, the finalists against Brazil less than a year later, we might find ourselves soon enough celebrating another mirage.

This is not to diminish what happened here. It was a beautiful game, filled with outstanding individual performance, and long before the end you wished you could burn away so many of the friendlies that had gone before in the Eriksson era, all the unenlightening clutter of cameo appearances and so many cheap caps Fifa was forced to legislate to protect the paying public. But if the win showed some passages of the best of English football, it also exposed again the great enigma of Eriksson's era. Here his substitutions worked to a stunning degree, but to what effect?

In reality, and in the end it was a glorious one, they demanded still another overhaul of the team's tactical priorities. When Ledley King, a marked success against Poland in the final qualifying game, was on the field England were lacerated in midfield by the brilliance of Juan Roman Riquelme, whose withdrawal by coach Jose Pekerman while Argentina held the lead, and the edge, has already sparked a firestorm of protest back home in South America. King did not let himself or his team down, but when Joe Cole came on to bring width, and then Peter Crouch to provide the space and the distraction exploited so magnificently by the suddenly aroused and predatory Owen, England had a new range of performance.

King was there at the start to hold the midfield, check the threat of Argentinian virtuosity, but when he left the momentum changed. England, despite their weaknesses at full back in the absence of Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, looked more secure at the back and threatening at the front.

Unquestionably the withdrawal of Riquelme played a part in the outcome - and the withdrawal of Hernan Crespo, despite his light duties at Chelsea, because of 'fatigue' was also a mystery in the gameplan of a team of great talent who plainly wanted to win just as much as England. Pekerman the Tinkerman will be under immense pressure now as the president of his national association pushes for the managerial involvement of a Diego Maradona restored to public life. Pekerman scarcely helped his case when he announced, "We didn't lose the match, just the last three minutes. If we meet England in the World Cup we will win." That, no doubt, will be going down in Buenos Aires about as well as an overcooked steak or an under-done tango.

Argentina wanted to swagger away from this game, confirmed as the authentic challengers to holders Brazil, who were beaten soundly in Argentina as the home team wrapped up qualification with three games to spare. They wanted the world to see that Riquelme, who failed at Barcelona when he first arrived in Europe, has matured into a football masterpiece of timing and judgement of space, a man who in his own less dramatic way is as integral to the team's success as Maradona was in his day. They wanted to show that England could be dismissed as hollow pretenders even in the absence of their version of Rooney, Barcelona's teenage luminary Lionel Messi, and that alongside Riquelme and Messi they have other world-class performers like Esteban Cambiaso, Maximiliano Rodriguez and the captain Juan Pablo Sorin.

The scale of Riquelme's class is now etched into the heart of Ledley King, in the way that the wit and pace of Rodriguez is branded on the psyche of a Wayne Bridge whose return to big-time football must have been nearly as disquieting as a stroll through a minefield. These, though, were in the end turned into mere flesh wounds by the strikes of Owen.

Yes, Riquelme was majestic. But then Rooney was more than ever a force of nature. He broke tackles as though they were made of tissue. His knack of finding space in the most dangerous areas was unbroken. He scored a goal of geometric perfection and missed another one - when his chip hit the foot of post - which would have brushed fantasy.

England's dependence on Rooney has become as deep as we imagined it might when he transformed the team on his first appearance, and then threatened to carry it to the European title in Portugal last year. Alongside him, Owen's enduring ability to score at the world level - first announced on that dramatic night in St Etienne seven years ago - was the latest evidence for Argentina that no football nation on earth is more capable than England at crossing demarcation lines imposed by mere technique. Before the game Eriksson vividly expressed the threat of Argentina. He said they had the technical flair of South America and the aggression of Europe.

So where does that leave England? It is precisely where they have always been under Eriksson. They are riding a rollercoaster. They are both incomprehensibly bad and dramatically good. Steve Gerrard, restive at playing so many different roles for England, finished the game at right back with an expression just this side of stoicism. However, he produced a brilliant cross for Owen's goal and if some of his work in the company of Frank Lampard was erratic, some of it was sublime, most strikingly the ball he delivered into the path of Rooney for the shot that smacked against a post. That would have been a goal for the ages. It would also have been the other side of England, Eriksson's work in eternal progress.

Did the seductive night here really say that England can win the World Cup? Or was it phantom glory, created partly by the meddlings of the Argentine coach? The record is not encouraging in its lack of consistency. In the last World Cup finals, England played encouragingly well in the first half of the first game against Sweden, then in the second with no more coherance than a bunch of park footballers. They were good against Argentina, indifferent against Nigeria, accepted the gifts of Denmark well enough in the round of 16, and then fell apart against a 10-man Brazil.

That, and some worrying qualification performances against Albania and Greece, was the sequel to the last time England served notice that they could beat the world. So there is reason enough for caution, as there is for hope. As we were saying, we just have to roll up and see.

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