The year ahead: Draw gives Irish the chance to upstage Eriksson

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The Independent Online

English football may be involved in the most unpredictable championship race for years but, however it is resolved, 2002 will not be primarily remembered for Nicolas Anelka's return, Arsenal's 10-man campaign, or even the win-or-bust gambles of Sir Alex Ferguson's final season. For all but the eventual victors, the Premiership is but an enthralling prelude to the World Cup.

England have been given an extremely demanding draw, but qualification from Group H ought not be beyond them. To progress further is likely to require defeating either or both of Argentina and France. That is just to reach the quarter-finals.

To get that far Sven Goran Eriksson will need his key players – David Beckham, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard – to be fit and in form. He must also select correctly from the clutch of goalkeepers contesting the No 1 jersey.

The Republic of Ireland have been dealt a kinder hand but are equally dependent on the fitness of Roy Keane. How Germany, their group opponents, fare is one of the more intriguing aspects of the tournament. Similarly, is Brazil's decline exaggerated or real? And just how well will Japan and South Korea host the sport's premier event?

After the events of the last fortnight the Football Association will hope desperately that England's hooligan supporters are neither heard nor seen. Whether they should set a lead by ostracising Lee Bowyer is currently exercising the game's mandarins. The FA also has Wembley on its mind. Will this be the year the bulldozers finally move in?

Chief among other issues to be resolved is the identity of Ferguson's successor. Should Manchester United land a senior figure from the Continent, a Fabio Capello or Giovanni Trapattoni, it will be confirmation of the Premiership's prestige, regardless of the behaviour of some of its cast.

Prediction: England to return from the World Cup before the Republic of Ireland. Argentina to beat Italy in the final.

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