Maturing Joe out to show Sven he can be trusted

World Cup qualifiers: Cole still in a hole as the understudy fights to prove his worth to England after Scholes exit
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The Independent Football

Nice young man that he is, Joe Cole could be forgiven a little tremor of excitement if at some time in the next six days Steven Gerrard suddenly clutches any part of his anatomy with sufficient anxiety to indicate that his place in England's World Cup qualifying match against Austria on Saturday evening might be in jeopardy.

Just as forgivably, Cole must have been one of the few people connected with English football to relish Paul Scholes's decision this summer to give up on internationals, apparently opening up the position in Sven Goran Eriksson's team linking midfield with attack that the young Londoner has long dreamed of filling. Instead, there was a characteristically Erikssonian reversion to the tried and trusted, by which Nicky Butt simply reclaimed his place as the holding midfielder after injury and Steven Gerrard took up Scholes's role, marauding forward from the left.

It was in that position that England's head coach watched Cole perform with such confidence and authority for Chelsea at Crystal Palace last Tuesday, but speaking only a few hours earlier at the Football Association's offices in Soho, Eriksson had made it clear who he considered to be the man in possession. "Steven Gerrard didn't do badly out there," he said of this month's friendly match against Ukraine, adding for the benefit of any listeners who might have missed the understated irony: "He was excellent, all over the place."

When not in possession, get in position, Cole was doubtless told in his schooldays by coaches who thought they had anything to teach the young prodigy. He must surely be in position now as understudy to Gerrard, ahead of anyone such as the increasingly irksome Kieron Dyer, but is Eriksson convinced he can perform consistently at the highest level? Allowing him a total of 16 minutes at the World Cup finals two years ago, 16 minutes less than that in Portugal this summer, and a total of two starts in three years, suggests not.

The Swede's thoughts on the matter last week were: "You've been talking about him in this country for four or five years. I heard about him before I came here as one of the biggest talents and so on. It's important for him at club level to find a role. I'd be very happy to see him play in the same position for a number of games, which he almost never did [for Chelsea]. That's the most important thing. It's difficult for me if he's not starting. I hope he'll find a place in the team, but it's up to him and [Jose] Mourinho. It's the same with all players - if they don't play regularly they're not happy, and confidence maybe goes. Then when you come on you have to show everything and that's a big pressure."

It is a pressure that Cole will inevitably feel if he gets on to the pitch at any stage in Vienna on Saturday or in Poland four days later, games from which England should regard four points as being the minimum acceptable return and six as an achievable target. Although Austria were England's first foreign opponents back in 1908, suffering home defeats in Vienna by 6-1 and 11-1 in the space of three days, the countries have not met for 25 years, since Ron Greenwood's side lost a Ferris wheel of a game 4-3.

More recently, the Austrians have been in decline, as their Fifa ranking of 47th illustrates. Hans Krankl, once a hugely popular goalscorer for Rapid and Barcelona, has been unable to bring about much of an improvement in an admittedly difficult European Championship qualifying group with the Czech Republic and Holland.

Eriksson has been studying the videotape of Austria's opening friendly this season, and will have seen little to worry him in a 3-1 home defeat by Germany except for a spectacular goal struck by the left-winger Martin Amerhauser, one of several players in the squad who appeared for Graz AK against Liverpool last week. Others included the main striker, Roland Wollman, and Andreas Schranz, who is vying with two former Premiership players, Alex Manninger and Jürgen Macho, for the troublesome position of goalkeeper.

"We have a problem in goal," Krankl has admitted. He had picked Thomas Mandl of Basel against Germany, hoping to restore the player's confidence, but a soft third goal to give Kevin Kuranyi a hat-trick had the opposite effect. Krankl immediately arranged a trip to watch Manninger, formerly David Seaman's understudy at Arsenal, play in a friendly for his new club, Brescia.

Midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz of Rapid is the country's youngest-ever captain at 20 and is playing up to his image as Austria's David Beckham: "I don't just want to play well, I also want to look good." The chance to see the two of them in direct opposition helped sell out the 47,000-capacity Ernst Happel Stadium (formerly the Prater) more quickly than the Austrian Football Association could remember for any previous game. Beckham and Michael Owen will join up later than the rest of the squad, Eriksson hoping that neither collects a knock playing in a friendly for Real Madrid on Tuesday night, but not wanting to antagonise Madrid's coach, Jose Antonio Camacho, now that three England players are under his wing.

The newest of them, Jonathan Woodgate, is not yet fit, and with Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney all still missing, there will be virtually no changes in the squad announced later today, though Phil Neville's experience could earn him a recall as Glen Johnson has not been playing for Chelsea. Eriksson must then choose between Emile Heskey, Alan Smith and Jermain Defoe, all of whom have made a confident, scoring start to the season, as partner to Owen.

Of the younger brigade, Ledley King but not Shaun Wright-Phillips can expect to start both games. In the longer term, the head coach says he has high hopes of Jermaine Pennant, Shola Ameobi and Carlton Cole, for all of whom the problem has been finding regular football. Joe Cole knows the feeling.