Sven's powers of recovery put to the test

Soap opera off the field follows farce on it in sorry curtain-raiser to the serious action to come

Before the squad reassemble in eight days' time for the qualification double-header in Wales and Northern Ireland, it might be helpful to add a new piece of manager-speak to the Swede's vocabulary. Iain Dowie's "bouncebackability" is the commodity England are most in need of after what was not so much a gentle wake-up call as a shattering blast of the alarm clock at four in the morning.

We have, however, been here before. Been, more precisely, at White Hart Lane, where England were taken apart by Holland this very week four summers ago, only to confound the gloom a month later by winning 5-1 away to Germany. Then there was Upton Park in February 2003, and a humiliating defeat by Australia, who in those days were expected to win the Ashes but not the football equivalent. Pilloried without mercy, Eriksson and his men won their next eight games, including the critical European Championship match at home to Turkey. More recently, dispiriting friendlies against Spain and Holland (again) were followed by the demolition of Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan to complete five successive victories in the World Cup group.

If there is a conclusion to be drawn, it has to be that while neither the coach nor his players take non-competitive matches as seriously as might reasonably be demanded, they tend to get it right on the night when the chips and the country's mood are down. As Gary Neville put it in Copenhagen: "I think what we're going to have to do is take whatever criticism comes our way, which you sometimes have to do, because losing 4-1 in an England shirt is not good enough.

"In two weeks' time, we'll come back and try to get the results we need in the competitive games. I don't think anyone will have any doubts about being in the right frame of mind then. We've not been at our best in friendlies over the past couple of years, I don't know why. We haven't got the same edge to our game, but come Wales, Northern Ireland, Austria and Poland, you'll see it. It's a different mindset in friendlies, but tonight we had a full team out there, and first half and last half hour, we were the better team."

Even if the last point is debatable, Neville, like Paul Robinson and John Terry, emerged with his reputation intact. Improved, in fact, since in each case the performance of their understudies was so lacking in international quality. Glen Johnson's credentials were further diminished, as they have been since he made the ill-advised switch to Chelsea, where, like Wayne Bridge, he cannot expect much football this season. Jose Mourinho clearly does not value either man as highly as Eriksson, who named Phil Neville, hesitantly, as the next-best English full-back - which is almost where he came in after Neville's and Kevin Keegan's wretched Euro 2000. "Glen Johnson I hope will play now and again for Chelsea," the head coach said. "I still think he's the biggest young talent for that position."

Lack of adequate cover at full-back is replicated in goal, David James having lost in 45 horrible minutes all the ground he might have made up with his club performances since dropping the previous international clanger in Austria. Furthermore, his admission of not having prepared himself properly illustrated perfectly Neville's point about the casual approach. "Maybe I can get away with this one because it's a friendly," James reportedly said. Let us hope not.

Were Gary Neville even vice-captain, which he ought to be, he might have broken the silence of the dressing room, where the players sat with heads bowed. While we no longer expect "Iain Duncan Smith" Eriksson to address the troops in the style of Churchill or Ferguson, it would be good to think that somebody else - Steve McClaren or Sammy Lee? - might be doing so. Apparently not.

"If you lose your temper, you lose your brain," is Eriksson's philosophy. "I went out into the technical area, which I don't normally do, because everything was wrong," he added. "But you can't change 10 different things from the touchline."

He admitted to being disappointed that the players "did not help each other" during the second half, but was more concerned, as ever, with the technical side of the game than the emotional one: "We practised a lot exactly what we wanted to do when a certain player had the ball. That went very well first half, but second half we didn't do anything right. If we don't have the right shape when we attack and lose the ball, then we will never have it when we defend. Nobody knows where anybody is." Keep the shape, don't run with the ball, play it simple. (Are you listening, Joe Cole?)

At full strength, or even without Michael Owen, England will be expected to take care of Wales, against whose limited defence a fully fit Peter Crouch might find a role, and Northern Ireland. Although they are two points behind Poland, who have played a game more, it would be difficult not to qualify automatically - as well as the group winners, the two leading runners-up, currently including England, go through.

But this is not the time to be looking too far ahead. As the man said, in unfaltering English: "Can we even think about the World Cup?"

Comments