`The best is still to come'

Should Rooney play in the World Cup, there is every POSSIBILITY that he can help his talented team-mates to go two steps beyond what Gascoigne, Lineker and Co. achieved in 1990.

Sven-Goran Eriksson has promised England fans "the best is still to come" from his team irrespective of whether his best player Wayne Rooney plays in Germany or not. Eriksson leaves the job after the World Cup, but insists his lasting legacy hinges on results in Germany over the next month.

The Swede has always maintained this tournament would be the defining moment for this generation of England players, which he insists does not stop short at Rooney. He firmly believes he is in charge of a squad capable of going all the way to the final in Berlin on July 9 and returning with the golden trophy. "I think the best is still to come. I hope I will be remembered for World Cup 2006. That would be very nice. I've always said we have a chance to go all the way. We have fantastic footballers. It's the best squad in five and a half years and the team spirit is better than ever," Eriksson said.

Steve McClaren will take the reins after the World Cup finals but Eriksson is planning another seven World Cup matches. England's first foreign manager said: "I will miss it but five and a half years is a long time. I know I have only a maximum of seven games to sit on the bench. I've enjoyed my time in England. I've been extremely proud to have this job. I will miss it but I haven't thought about it. I've been focused on what to do in the coming month."

Eriksson could bring Peter Crouch into his attack, alongside Michael Owen, for the World Cup in a 4-4-2 formation intended to maximise the scoring skills of Owen, England's only available world-class goal-scorer with Wayne Rooney still recovering from a metatarsal injury.

Owen, himself on the comeback trail from his broken foot, played a full 90 minutes this year only once, that too in England's last preparatory game against Jamaica. The Newcastle striker also played for over an hour in a recent friendly against Hungary before being substituted. Eriksson said: "Against Hungary he played with a bit of fear, not going into big tackles, but it will be different in the World Cup. He will score goals for us in the World Cup. Big games and Michael Owen are very close friends. It has been like that through his career. This is his third World Cup. He is still young but an experienced player and he knows how to handle himself in big tournaments."

It is Owen's ineffectiveness as single striker against Hungary that has prompted Eriksson to consider going into the World Cup with a striker supporting Owen in front. Against Hungary, Eriksson had started with a 4-1-3-1-1 formation with Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard playing just behind Owen. David Beckham and Joe Cole were the wide midfielders and Frank Lampard was the central midfielder. Liverpool centre-back Jamie Carragher was given the holding midfielder's role for the first time in his career, and he could keep it for the World Cup if Eriksson decides on a 4-1-3-1-1. The new formation was tried out in the Hungary game because of the injury to Wayne Rooney, which has made him a doubtful starter for the World Cup.

However, after England's 6-0 drubbing of Jamaica in the last friendly before the World Cup, it appears that Crouch and Owen are likely to start the tournament in a 4-4-2 formation with an all attacking central midfield in Lampard and Gerrard. The Liverpool captain can also help out his back four if the need arises.

England's best player, Rooney, though, has stepped up his recovery — he trained with a football with Manchester United's physio team and it was found that he was even hammering away crosses without any discomfort to the injured foot. It was a positive development for the striker, whose scan on his broken metatarsal on June 7 — a date brought forward from June 14 by his club after a request from the Football Association — will determine his availability for the World Cup. The England manager said: "I'm very positive he will take part in the World Cup."

The FA should be able to decide whether or not the 20-year-old will be able to feature in the World Cup two days before the tournament begins, which will give them time to name a replacement if necessary.

Rooney suffered the injury when falling awkwardly in a game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on April 29. But Eriksson and the nation's optimism about Rooney is not shared by former England manager Sir Bobby Robson. He feels Rooney will miss out completely on the World Cup, but the former England manager hopes to be proved wrong.

Robson is of the view that there is just not enough healing time to allow the player to return to his brilliant best. "The history of it says no. For him to recover in six weeks is asking a lot," Robson said. "I hope that I am completely wrong, because we all love him, he is a genius and a great, great player who makes a difference."

However, Robson admitted: "I think you have to believe a little miracle can happen, and keeping him in the squad is good for harmony and bonding." Robson, 73, guided England to the semifinal of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, when a certain young Paul Gascoigne emerged as the star of the tournament.

If Rooney proves Robson wrong, there is every possibility that he can help his talented team-mates to go two steps beyond what Gascoigne, Lineker and Co. achieved in 1990.

THE TEAM

Goalkeepers: Paul Robinson, David James, Scott Carson.

Defenders: Gary Neville, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Sol Campbell, Wayne Bridge, Jamie Carragher.

Midfielders: Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Owen Hargreaves, Jermaine Jenas, Michael Carrick, Aaron Lennon, Stewart Downing.

Forwards: Wayne Rooney (fitness permitting), Michael Owen, Peter Crouch, Theo Walcott.

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