"A formality," said Sven Goran Eriksson. "Couldn't have got a better draw." No, actually that was Alan Hansen, very much the jealous Scot. Not entirely correct either as, to adapt a cliché, there is no such thing as a formality in international football; and a better draw would have been France's, against Switzerland, South Korea and Togo.
But England should certainly come through Group B, and will be expected to find a new manager if they do not. They will also need to win it in order to avoid meeting Germany in Munich in the second round, assuming that the hosts top Group A, as they ought to. The famous 5-1 victory over the Germans in that same city four years ago may stand as the high point of Eriksson's reign, but he would not want to trust in a repeat if the Poles (beaten twice by England in the qualifying group) or Paulo Wanchope's Costa Rica were an alternative.
Logic - an unreliable element at World Cups - would then suggest a quarter-final against Holland or Portugal and, if successful, a semi-final against Brazil. Better, however, not to think that far. Eriksson, ever cautious, will certainly not be doing so in the next six months, during which friendlies will be scheduled against opposition similar to Sweden, Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago. The first of them could be a home game with Norway, Finland or Denmark at Anfield on 1 March, a day on which scouts will be dispatched to Dublin to watch Sweden's friendly with the Republic of Ireland.
"Sweden are as always organised, aggressive, physically strong," England's head coach said of his countrymen, who qualified as one of the best runners-up after losing twice to Croatia. "Up front, two great football players, [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson. Ibrahimovic if he goes on like this he will be one of the best in the world, some of the goals he is scoring for Juventus are fantastic. But I wouldn't change them with Rooney and Owen."
Eriksson's confidence in his own squad was further enhanced at the draw in Leipzig by compliments from other coaches, especially with regard to the narrow but exciting 3-2 victory over Argentina, who are just ahead of England as second favourites for the tournament. "Many coaches came to me and said, 'Jesus, that was football, beating Argentina'. I'm sure it sent out a message. To do a result like that when you know the next game is not until March, everything is good now. On the list of best European players we had one second [Lampard], one third [Gerrard], one number 10 [Terry] and one at 20 [Carragher]. I don't know when that has happened before, but it was great.
"It was European but that means the world, because none of the best 20 or 30 are playing outside of Europe. Technically I think we have been improving over the last five years. But the quality of the players we have is very, very good. Those players could play in any team in the world, in any club in the world."
Oddly, one of the four in Europe's top 20, Jamie Carragher, is currently no better than second or third reserve for a place in the centre of England's defence, though he unquestionably represents one of the stronger members of an otherwise flaky team of understudies. Luke Young, Wayne Bridge and Paul Konchesky have proved poor deputies for the full-backs Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, and Eriksson is concerned that Bridge of the Bridge, like Tottenham's Jermain Defoe, is not currently starting for his club.
Defoe and Peter Crouch would normally be the reserve strikers to Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, ahead of Darren Bent and Andy Johnson, but Eriksson is keen to emphasise that rooms in the five-star hotel in Baden-Baden (such a swanky place they named it twice) have not yet been allocated. "Everything is open. Even the old ones, Heskey, Vassell, shouldn't feel they are out."
As for the first team, Eriksson confirmed that he wants to go to Germany with two possible systems, and that a midfield including Joe Cole rather than a holding player is his preference: "If the World Cup was started tomorrow, the team with Joe Cole would be the best one. It depends, do we want to play with a sitting midfielder or not? We have to think who do we want to have there. Ledley King did well against Argentina, but it was a big and difficult test."
A midfield of David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Cole ought to suffice against Paraguay and Trinidad & Tobago, if not Sweden. It would be as well, however, to give King plenty of practice in the three friendlies if he is considered the prime candidate for the holding role, ahead of Owen Hargreaves and the unfortunate Scott Parker.
The other unknown factor, which undermined England in 2002, was fitness. Between now and June, David Beckham's back will be the subject of almost as many medical bulletins as his metatarsal was four years ago. The nation will wince every time Michael Essien goes anywhere near Rooney, Owen or Gerrard, while Lampard, Cole and Terry should make sure they are on the Ghanaian's side in training.
But if they all stay fit, Eriksson will fly to Germany with the strongest England team at a major tournament since 1970; and now the wind of a favourable draw to blow them along.
(Frankfurt, 10 June). Fourth in South America's bloated qualifying group, the Paraguayans beat Argentina in September with a goal by their star man, Bayern Munich's Roque Santa Cruz. Having delayed a knee operation, however, he now faces a struggle to be fit. Back in April 2002 they performed feebly in a 4-0 defeat at Anfield by England.
World ranking: 30th. Previous World Cups: Six; last 16 in 1986, 1998 and 2002. Record v England: P2 W0 D0 L2 F0 A7. Coach: Anibal Ruiz.
TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
(Nuremberg, 15 June) Even Dwight Yorke and the clutch of players from the Football League might agree that the vast experience of 63-year-old coach Leo Beenhakker is the best weapon of the smallest country (population 1.1m) at the finals. In charge of the Holland team who held England at the 1990 tournament, he also did sterling work for Ajax, Real Madrid and Feyenoord. Taking over last April, he revived a faltering campaign, helping the Soca Warriors into a play-off and past Bahrain.
World ranking: 51st. Previous World Cups: n/a. Record v England: n/a. Coach: Leo Beenhakker.
(Cologne, 20 June) Two defeats and nine draws is England's record in 11 games against Sven Goran Eriksson's country since beating them at Wembley in 1968. The Swedes made the most of a poor England performance at the group stage last time but surprisingly lost to Senegal on a golden goal. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's improvement offers a serious attacking threat.
World ranking: 14th. Previous World Cups: 10; 1958 final and 1994 semi-final. Record v England: P20 W6 D8 L6 F24 A30. Coach: Lars Lagerback.Reuse content