Consistency in the team selection is the key for England world cup success. This is the mantra which has been adopted by England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson who has reiterated his faith in the England players who have made such an inept start to this season, signalling that he is unlikely to make significant changes to his first XI before the World Cup kicks off in June.
Eriksson broke with his normal pattern of behaviour on Saturday when he left Rio Ferdinand on the bench for England’s 1-0 win over Austria.
It was the first time the Swede had dropped one of his major stars, Ferdinand paying the price for a lacksadaisical display in last month’s defeat by Northern Ireland, an embarrassment which came hot on the heels of a shambolic display in a 4-1 friendly defeat by Denmark.
The Manchester United defender was out in the cold for only an hour however, an injury to Sol Campbell allowing him to reclaim his place alongside John Terry for the end of Saturday’s match, Wednesday’s final qualifier against Poland and, in all likelihood, next month’s friendly against Argentina in Geneva.
With the two-from-three dilemma over the centre-backs looking likely to be settled by Campbell’s recurring injury problems, Eriksson confirmed this week that his thinking about his best line-up had not been altered by recent setbacks.
“If you’d asked me after the second half against Denmark, maybe I would have changed all 11 players!” he joked. “But in football, you don’t play well in every game, so I should more or less still know the starting XI.”
Joe Cole is the player most likely to feel relief at that statement as it is an indication that he should hold on to the berth on the left of midfield that England have struggled to fill throughout Eriksson’s five years in charge.
Eriksson also seems determined to persevere with the Steven Gerrard/Frank Lampard axis in central midfield, despite concerns they are essentially too similar to be effective together.
An experiment with David Beckham playing behind the duo is unlikely to be repeated, and the England captain will start his third World Cup finals in the wide right position he occupied in both previous appearances.
Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen are automatic picks in attack, Paul Robinson has no serious opposition for the number one goalkeeper spot and Gary Neville and Ashley Cole will return to the full-back slots as soon as the injuries which ruled them out of the Poland match have healed.
All of which points to England starting the World Cup with the following 4-4-2 line-up: Paul Robinson, Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Beckham, Joe Cole, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen.
It is a team-sheet that makes Owen believe that next summer will present him with his best chance yet of winning a major trophy.
At 26, Owen is on the countdown to his fifth appearance at a European Championship or World Cup finals, and his faith in the players who will travel to Germany alongside him has not been diminished by the recent dip in the team’s performances.
“Obviously we haven’t performed as well as we would like in the last couple of games but there is a great blend of talent in this squad,” the Newcastle striker argued.
“We should be optimistic. When you get to a World Cup you need players you can look at and think ‘He can win a game on his own.’
“We’ve got the likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. If just one puts in a fantastic performance in a game, that could get us through maybe to the semi-finals.
“Then you look around and see a Wayne Rooney and other players and think ‘If he can turn it on, that bit of magic might open up another top team.’
“The more top players you’ve got, the more chance you’ve got of creating a bit of skill and magic – and Wayne is definitely one of those sort of people.”
England went into Wednesday’s match needing a win to help shore up their FIFA ranking, which could help ensure they are named as one of the eight seeds for Germany and thus avoid the likes of Brazil, Argentina and the hosts in the group stage.
But Owen does not feel that failure to secure a top seeding would necessarily be a disaster, underlining the connfidence England drew from their group stage win over Argentina at the last finals.
“Sometimes it is not a bad thing not to be seeded and to have a really big game early on in the World Cup,” he said.
“That can change things around. If you are not playing well and you have to play one of the big boys, you soon pick up your level of performance and gain a lot of confidence if you do well. Sometimes it takes a big game to snap out of a run.”