This time? England must lay down marker on journey towards greatness

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The Independent Football

When England won the World Cup, Geoff Hurst returned home to Essex the next day and was asked by his wife, Judith, to mow the lawn outside his bungalow that had been allowed to grow while he had been away. When he finished he gave the car a wash. Less than 24 hours after scoring his hat-trick at Wembley, he could already feel his World Cup journey coming to an end.

It is a story Hurst likes to tell, an astonishing example of how in an older, more innocent England a man could star in his country's finest sporting hour one day and be absorbed back into suburbia the next. Around 11am yesterday, 23 English footballers came down from their hotel on top of a hill in the Black Forest and began a journey that, should it end successfully in Berlin on 9 July, will mean none of their lives will ever be the same.

Not least for Sven Goran Eriksson, the football manager who resembles the inauspicious everyman of provincial England. His team have seven games to greatness and Eriksson was asked yesterday whether he could envisage coming back in glory, to be knighted as "Sir Sven". "I just hope to leave the job alive," he replied.

We hardly needed Eriksson to tell us that this time the stakes could not be higher. Wayne Rooney's broken metatarsal, Steven Gerrard's back spasms and an occasionally bewildering qualifying campaign mean the final leg starts in appropriately controversial fashion. To reach this afternoon's first Group B game against Paraguay, Eriksson has played four different formations (not including friendlies), changed his first-choice goalkeeper, suffered the most ignominious defeat of his reign (Northern Ireland away) and lost his job. He really does have nothing left to lose.

Overwhelming expectation, 100,000 fans and an entourage of wives, girlfriends and family - some of them famous in their own right - have followed England to Germany.

Outside Baden-Baden's best hotel yesterday, a small army of European paparazzi waited for Colleen McLoughlin and Victoria Beckham to arrive; in town all the bus stops are all decorated with a sign that reads: "Welcome Victoria - it's nice to see you." The carnival is in full swing and the football only starts today.

The England players will have felt it as they left the seclusion of their hotel and headed for Frankfurt, a city that is already beginning to look like a garrison town for the legions of St George. A drive through the centre of Frankfurt yesterday revealed that Portsmouth and Aston Villa flags had already staked out the O'Neill's pub on the Friedensbrucke road. It was 10am.

The 48,132-capacity Waldstadion's most famous hour was when Muhammad Ali battered Karl Mildenberger into submission over 12 rounds almost 40 years ago, in a time when England were still champions of world football. Yesterday, it was Rooney (no mean schoolboy boxer in his younger days) who took centre stage and, in keeping with the caution advised concerning his right foot, tried to drop kick a ball against the scoreboard that hangs 70 feet above the pitch.

Rooney's lecture on careful rehabilitation from the orthopaedic surgeon may not have had the profound effect Manchester United will have hoped. In his first session back since that dubious all-clear, Rooney chased the ball during the piggy-in-the-middle passing session with the urgency of a man leaving a burning house. He thundered towards team-mates, slid in for tackles and hustled with the best of them.

A more cynical observer might have concluded that Rooney was proving a point about his fitness; the more optimistic among England's following would say that the boy wonder has defied the diagnosis of some of the finest medical minds in the country. Certainly his contribution was more encouraging than Gerrard's - he spent some of the session on his back while the England physiotherapist manipulated his leg muscles so savagely that the Liverpool captain slid back and forth on the turf.

The prospect of Jermaine Jenas in the centre of midfield, as he finished yesterday's training session, is a reminder that there are limits to the depth of Eriksson's squad. England will beat Paraguay today if they obey the rules they have been taught many times over the last two years. That Michael Owen does not flourish when is forced to play with his back to goal, that England play better at a high-tempo Premiership pace and that they cannot afford to sit too deep to defend a lead.

Gary Neville said this week that "Paraguay will know as much about us as we do about them", which - you assumed - meant that England had been thoroughly briefed on their opposition. These are the details which seem to have escaped Eriksson over his England career, never one for an in-depth study of the opposition. Before the Jamaica friendly he identified the greatest threat as "the Watford striker". By then Marlon King had already been very publicly sent home.

Eriksson seems to have left so much to chance over the years - the names of opposition players, the identity of the referee - but this time he sounds more in control. And while talk of team spirit and unity within the camp can normally be dismissed as the usual non-thinking prattle of professional footballers, this time it seems genuine. Watching the England squad over the last three weeks tells you that they enjoy playing together.

England's record in the first games of international tournaments is poor: in the last nine opening matches (going back to the 1986 World Cup finals) they have won just one. Eriksson's eagerness to bring Rooney back in the group stages is a reflection of how central he regards winning Group B to success in the tournament. United would describe it as desperation on Eriksson's part.

Today's result will set the mood for the tournament and it will dictate whether England have to chase qualification or can cruise through to the knock-out stages. It may go some way to deciding whether they play Germany or Poland in the next round and it could dictate whether Rooney will be used against Sweden or sooner.

Eriksson has finally stamped his authority - however misguided - on the Rooney saga in the last 48 hours. Today his team must do the same on the World Cup finals.