England looking to clear self-doubts

A win over Northern Ireland here on Wednesday will propel England to the verge of a place in next year`s World Cup...

 Even if they fail to overhaul group six leaders Poland, Sven-Goran Eriksson`s side now look virtually assured of qualifying as one of the two best runners-up in the European zone.

Such an outcome would be guaranteed if a win over Northern Ireland`s lower league journeymen were to be followed by victory over Austria next month, and there seems little reason to doubt that England will avoid the stress of having to take something from their final group match, against Poland on 12 October.

Eriksson and company however face a more difficult task when it comes to quelling the doubts that have emerged in the last month over their ability to mount a serious challenge for glory in Germany.

A humiliating 4-1 defeat in Denmark, albeit in a friendly, was sufficiently traumatic for Eriksson to embark on an attempt to broaden England`s tactical options to include the ability to play with a five-man midfield behind a solitary striker.

Against Wales on Saturday, with Wayne Rooney up front on his own, the new-look line-up delivered the required victory.

But a nervy finale to the match has led most pundits to predict a return to Eriksson`s tried-and-trusted 4-4-2 formation on Wednesday, with Michael Owen returning to the attack after sitting out the Wales match through suspension.

 Owen`s recent transfer from Real Madrid to Newcastle means he has yet to play a competitive match this season - but the former Liverpool striker insists that will simply make him hungrier for success when he pulls on the England shirt once more.

"I`m calm now I know where I`m going to live and where I`ll be playing," he said. "My mind is a lot more focussed than it was. Now it`s settled, I`m more stable in my mind."

Owen insisted that too much had been made of Eriksson`s tactical shift, insisting there was little difference from the way England normally played.

"Wayne Rooney doesn`t play alongside or in front of me - he always tries to utilise the space behind me," he said.

"It`s always been a 4-4-1-1 anyway. I`m not denying the formation is slightly different but it`s not wholesale changes.

"I`ve never played this formation with the national team but it`s not worrying, I see it as very similar to what we`ve played in the past."

England`s last two performances have pricked a bubble of optimism about the current squad`s ability to do better than their predecessors at the last World Cup and Euro 2004, both of which ended with quarter-final exits.

But among the players themselves, there appears to be a deeply ingrained belief in their ability to finally end a 40-year wait for a major trophy.

Arsenal defender Ashley Cole even claimed the squad had emerged stronger as a result of the pain suffered in Denmark.

"We have a good unit here and all the lads get on well but the Denmark game hurt and it was hard afterwards to comprehend what exactly happened.

"But it brought all the lads together and we want to prove to people and ourselves that we can go all the way in the World Cup if we qualify.

"We started that process on Saturday and we have got our destiny in our own hands. If we keep defending well, we know we can always create and score goals.

"In a World Cup year it is also about peaking at the right time and if we get through, we should do really well. There are a lot of players who are young but experienced as well - and everyone knows about Wayne Rooney.

"Hopefully he is going to go to another tournament and set it alight like he did in Euro 2004. He definitely could be the difference."

Northern Ireland were hopelessly outclassed as they succumbed to a 4-0 defeat by England in Manchester in March.

But manager Lawrie Sanchez has engineered a turnaround in the territory`s fortunes that climaxed in Saturday`s 2-0 win over Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland`s first competitive victory in four years.

That result lifted morale significantly and Sheffield United winger Keith Gillespie warned that the Northern Irish players are capable of throwing a huge spanner into the works.

"The win on Saturday was just the performance and the result we wanted ahead of the England game. We showed a lot discipline," Gillespie said.

"The pressure is off us and on England," he added. "Nobody gives us a chance.

"We will just go out and play our normal game. You get freak results in football and this could be one of them."