Two friendlies in the same week against teams who have qualified for the game's greatest showpiece come as a frustrating reminder of what might have been, had the Football Association been bold enough to grasp the nettle after the debacle in Boston last summer.
Greece's well-travelled coach, Alketas Panagoulias, is in no doubt, and would much prefer to be playing the hit-and-hope England of the Graham Taylor era. 'You are playing good football again under Terry Venables,' he said. 'I saw England beat Denmark, and the formation and combined play was very good - very modern.'
The Greeks were the first European team to qualify for the World Cup, winning six games and drawing the other two to win Group Five from Russia, Hungary, Iceland and Luxembourg, yet Panagoulias and his players arrive in hope rather than expectation.
A 3-0 defeat at home to Cameroon last week did nothing for their morale, and the damage was only partly repaired when they drew 0-0 with Bolivia in Athens on Friday.
Wembley would be 'a big test' Panagoulias said, borrowing Taylor's immortal phrase. 'I am throwing my team into deep water and hoping they can swim. They will have to learn if they are going to do anything in the World Cup.'
Privately, the Greeks expect nothing better than a two-goal defeat, their respect for England yet another illustration of the ground regained in just one game under Venables' revivalist management.
The new coach was in characteristically upbeat mood yesterday when he shuffled the pieces in his jigsaw, but made sure they fell into place within the same framework. There were no fewer than five changes after his winning start against the Danes, four of them enforced but the team's basic shape - what he calls his Christmas tree formation - remains unaltered.
The roll-call first. Manchester United's Cup finalists, Paul Parker, Gary Pallister and Paul Ince, are all missing, nursing either sore limbs or sore heads and Paul Gascoigne is a long-term absentee, with his broken leg. Of the omissions, only David Seaman was deemed to be fully fit, mentally as well as physically, and he is 'rested' to give Tim Flowers valuable international experience, and a second cap.
Of the replacements, Rob Jones is preferred to Warren Barton as Parker's No 2, and Paul Merson gets his first start at Wembley in Gascoigne's place, but most interest is sure to focus on Steve Bould and Kevin Richardson, the oldest England debut-makers since Leslie Compton understudied Billy Wright at the ripe old age of 38, back in 1950.
Bould and Richardson, team- mates briefly at Highbury, are both 31, and each admitted that he thought his chance had gone. Venables, however, was much impressed by Bould's partnership with Tony Adams throughout Arsenal's triumphant odyssey in Europe, and wants to see if they can reproduce the resolute efficiency that thwarted Parma and Paris St- Germain at the ultimate level.
Similarly, Richardson did himself no harm in the Coca-Cola Cup final, when his winning, and economic use, of possession was central to Aston Villa's against-the-odds victory over Manchester United. Having outfought Ince that day, he will be a popular choice, among the players, at least, to deputise for him now.
'Getting in the B team last week was a major surprise, never mind this,' Bould said. 'I thought it had all passed me by when I was picked in the squad for Russia three years ago and didn't get a game.' Bould over would be about right.
Ditto Richardson. 'I thought I might have had a chance under Graham Taylor, having played for him at Watford, but not now.'
Coming after the restoration of Peter Beardsley, the selection of two more 30-somethings is welcome proof that form will be the sole criterion for the new regime. If they are playing well enough, they are young enough.
'I don't look upon Bould and Richardson as stop-gaps,' Venables said. 'I wouldn't be bringing them in if I thought they wouldn't be around in two years' time.'
The second part is fair enough, but Bould was kept out of the Arsenal team by Andy Linighan at one stage this season, and it is difficult to see him as anything other than a stand-in for Pallister, and the prospect of Richardson ousting Ince, the best midfield player in the country, is plainly risible.
Much more convincing was Venables' exposition on his free- form formation, loosely 4-3-2-1. He had used it, with success, at Barcelona and at Tottenham, and was convinced that it was the right way to play - with the vital proviso that the players were right for it.
England's had to be, he felt. International football demanded improvisation and seamless positional interchanging, and he had been greatly encouraged by the intelligence and adaptability evident on opening night, against the Danes.
There would be time for experiment, and a new format, but that would come later. The need was to build on a promising start and familiarise everyone with the preferred pattern. Alan Shearer, therefore, will again be stationed furthest forward, supported from just behind by Beardsley and David Platt, with Merson and Darren Anderton supplying width from a midfield to be anchored by Richardson.
It looks good, a bold, attacking team featuring five players normally regarded as forwards, but it is impossible to please everyone, and why no Matt Le Tissier was a question which will have had more than a few echoes.
'He is definitely in my plans,' Venables said. 'It's just a matter of when he comes in.' The smart money is on Sunday, when Norway complete the double bill.
First things first, and Greece are expected to defend in depth, clustered around a sweeper, and attack on the break, principally through Nikos Mahlas, the 20-year-old whose goal against Russia won the qualifying group.
England should win, but the Greeks are guaranteed the last laugh, along the lines of 'we're going to America, you're not'.
If only . . .
GREECE (probable): Minou (Apollon), Apostolakis (Panathinaikos), Karayannis (AEK Athens), Kolitsidakis (Apollon), Kalitzakis (Panathinaikos), Tsalouchidis (Panathinaikos), Hantzidis (Olympiakos), Nioplias (Panathinaikos), Mahlas (OFI Crete), Mitropoulos (AEK Athens), Tsiantakis (Olympiakos).
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