The bigger picture

If England want at long last to find a relevant left-sided midfielder, they need hardly look further than Gareth Barry , who should never have been discarded by Eriksson three years ago.

We can, I imagine, take it for granted that both Brazil and Argentina will, as usual, qualify from that over-populated South American group for the next World Cup. Having, somewhat surprisingly, been able twice recently to watch Brazil play in North London, it seemed plain enough that Dunga, though he had never previously managed at any level, has made a flying start, the win over an admittedly under-prepared Argentina at Highbury being of huge psychological significance. Both those gifted young players, Kaka and Robinho, so disappointing when push came to shove in the last World Cup, looked in glittering form, while the 18-year-old full-back Marcelo, who scored a spectacular left-footed goal on his international debut versus Wales at Tottenham, looks as if he will carry on the distinguished succession of left-backs, from Nilton Santos to Roberto Carlos.

Argentina, who have brought back a former coach in the veteran Alfio Basile, have plenty of talent in their team, including the two stars Carlos Mendez and Javier Mascherano who have so suddenly and mysteriously joined West Ham United from the Corinthians of Sao Paulo, with no fee paid. I watched the chunky striker Tevez make his debut as a sub for West Ham against Aston Villa and felt he was unfairly criticised. Yes, he may still be short of full fitness, but the way he moved effectively to either wing, the way he challenged for the ball, showed that he is a striker of true quality. Steve McClaren, England's sadly uninspiring manager, wore his habitual happy grin after England's stumbling 1-0 win in Skopje in Macedonia in their second European qualifying game and pronounced himself well satisfied with their dull performance. That Croatia, on the same day, should have held Hiddink's Russia to a 0-0 draw in Moscow certainly helped England's cause in their group, but unless the return of Wayne Rooney from suspension can galvanise the team, there is so much still amiss.

An unlucky injury in training to the dynamic Spurs outside-right Aaron Lennon put him out of commission for the next England game versus Macedonia at home, but he showed, when belatedly, as usual both with McClaren and the disastrous Eriksson, he came on in Skopje as a late substitute, what a difference his pace and elusiveness can make. How absurd not to start with him yet to play McClaren's former protege at Middlesbrough, Stewart Downing, on the left, with his lack of pace and trickery. Not to mention using Steve Gerrard wide on the right.

In the previous game against feeble Andorra, Gerrard did pretty much as he liked against one of the poorest leftbacks one had ever seen in an international game. But in Skopje against a decent defender he looked ineffectual. Whether or not Liverpool, whose manager Rafael Benitez makes less and less sense as tactician or even a selector, employs Gerrard it is hardly relevant. Gerrard is beyond doubt a highly talented and forceful player, but his best work is surely done in the middle.

If England want at long last to find a relevant left-sided midfielder, they need hardly look further than Gareth Barry, who in my view should never have been discarded by Eriksson three years ago. Playing for Aston Villa at left-back at Upton Park he had an outstanding game, whether it be curling in his insidious left-wing corners, or testing the 'keeper with his supposedly weaker right foot. Asked afterwards whether he thought Barry — who probably prefers to play farther up in left midfield — should be in the England squad, the new, highly successful, Villa manager, Martin O'Neill, replied tactfully that since he had been turned down for the role of England manager, he didn't feel it right to comment; then he eulogised Barry in terms which left no doubt of his belief.

Italy have faltered badly in both their opening group games, held embarrassingly at home to a draw by modest Lithuania, well beaten 3-1 in Paris by France against whom they edged home on penalties in the recent World Cup. The corruption scandals, causing Serie A to be resumed so late, hardly helped the new inexperienced manager Roberto Donadoni — managing little Livorno was hardly the best preparation for the huge pressures of managing the azzurri — and qualification may now be far from assured. As for France, they seemed not to miss Zizou Zidane at all. Thierry Henry flourished as he has failed to do for Arsenal this season, his former Highbury colleagues Patrick Vieira showed he has found a new lease of life in midfield and Lyon's Sydney Govou weighed in with a couple of goals.

At Tottenham, the Welsh manager John Toshack was lamenting his team's continuing lack of finishing power, though he emphasised he felt both Czech goals in Teplice (a 2-l defeat) were irregular. Ryan Giggs, however, was in glorious form at Tottenham as indeed he has been for Manchester United and while he was on the field for that first half, looked as good as any Brazilian. It does seem to me, though, that Wales must bring back their big strong, blond striker, John Hartson, very soon.

Scotland have been the surprise. Thrashing the Faroe Islands at home meant very little (though the Scots have struggled against them away) but the 2-1 win in Lithuania was evidence that the team has at long last found winning form. In Kaunas they shrugged off several injuries, went into a 2-0 lead with a coolly taken goal by Kenny Miller, and held on to victory when Lithuania pressed in the closing stages. Veteran manager Walter Smith may have turned the trick.