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Another game, another permutation on the left. Saturday's match against Northern Ireland will be Sven-Göran Eriksson's 50th in charge of England but the same old problems remain. In his first game - against Spain at Villa Park four years ago - Eriksson fielded the right-footed Nick Barmby on the left side of midfield; today he will try the right-footed Joe Cole.

Between the two have come a host of unlikely options - from Emile Heskey, a centre-forward, to Wayne Bridge, a left-back, all of them unsatisfactory. Cole, at least, being able to use his left foot is a rounder peg than many have been, and, under José Mourinho, he seems finally to have learnt to channel his trickery to hurt opponents.

The Cole cameo, his bleat about "giving England something different", has been a regular feature of the build-up to international games for a couple of seasons, but the truth is he was always something of a performing seal, always ready to turn a caper no matter his position on the field or the state of the game.

In recent weeks, though, he has become something else, more direct, more intelligent, more responsible, and his performance for Chelsea against Barcelona in the Champions League was impressive.

"He looks very good," said Eriksson. "He seems like another player. He's working very hard, which probably wasn't his best thing. He's changed. He's always been one of the biggest talents in the country but he's taken a huge step."

The only quibble is that those performances for Chelsea have come on the right, while it is Ireland's Damien Duff who has tormented defences on the left. It is encouraging, nonetheless, that Cole has more than a year before the finals to forge a partnership with left-back Ashley Cole, much of it against mediocre opposition.

While it is to Eriksson's advantage that he can hardly fail to qualify for the World Cup from such an uninspiring group, it makes it difficult for England really to impress. Eriksson is too canny to allow any hint of complacency - it is salutary that his final qualifier is against Poland, the team whose draw at Wembley in 1973 prevented England reaching the first German World Cup.

However, his tenure will tick quietly into a fifth year with the fundamental question unanswered: will this England, on paper the most promising in a decade, be any more adept at holding possession against top-class opposition than the sides that lost so frustratingly to Brazil in the last World Cup and Portugal in Euro 2004?

"We have many times played good football both in qualifying and the two big tournaments," Eriksson said. "If I were an England fan I would have been very happy to beat Wales 2-0 [as they did in the last competitive international in England]." To an extent he is right: so long as the points keep coming in, a club manager would be happy with a handful of stellar performances a season, while international games, being fewer, carry a greater burden of expectation.

The nature of the group means that demand cannot truly be satisfied, but Cole could at least provide some sense of progress.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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