The World Cup now

England players celebrate after scoring their third goal against Argentina during their friendly at Geneva, Switzerland. England won 3-2.-AP

AFTER that recent spate of so called `friendlies', not to mention a few play-offs, the World Cup picture becomes steadily clearer. Grand euphoria in England over the last gasp defeat of the Argentines in Geneva. Claims, however excessive, of England's World Cup prospects, not to mention the implied chances of the beaten Argentine team.

But while there were a good many pluses about the English victory, there were surely a good many caveats as well. Surely, both the teams on that lively afternoon showed palpable defensive weaknesses. In the case of England, at least the ever error-prone Sven-Goran Eriksson is unlikely (or is he one wonders?) to make the kind of daft mistake he did when choosing Chelsea's reserve left back Wayne Bridge, who'd played, after injury, just 60 minutes' first team football all season. It was almost inevitable that he should allow the impressive Argentine right winger, Maxi Rodriguez, to stroll past him as though he wasn't there to set up the game's first goal. His half time replacement, Paul Konchesky, was blamed for allowing Walter Samuel the Argentine centre back to elude him to get the second Argentine goal, but at least he had been playing regular Premiership football for West Ham. And by the time it comes to Germany, Arsenal's Andy Cole now in light training will surely be back.

Then there was the matter of Juan Roman Riquelme who on the evidence of that game is one of the finest creative midfielders, I am tempted to say inside-forwards, in the world. From the fourth minute, when he coolly and cleverly made himself space for a shot which the excellent English goalkeeper turned over the bar, an inspired Paul Robinson, he was simply running the game. The converted centre back Ledley King of Spurs who was notionally assigned to mark him just could not get near him. He was ubiquitous, endlessly elusive and potentially dangerous.

When Argentina scored their opening goal, he it was who started the move, winning the ball from Wayne Rooney — a major success in the game — in a left back position. His free kicks were insidious, his was the corner from which Samuel scored.

But Argentina's own defence was anything but effective. Last June in Germany it was taken apart by Brazil, conceding four goals. Neither Samuel nor the other veteran centre back Ruben Ayala was in parade that day, but they hardly improved matters. An awful mis-header by Ayala led to the first English goal. And Javier Zanetti, playing his 102nd game at right back, had previously and clumsily blundered, allowing Rooney to ultimately shoot against the post.

Two fine pieces of headed opportunism by Michael Owen, previously so anonymous, gave England a breathlessly late victory confirming him as the ideal opportunist and eternal hammer of the Argentines. Meaning that, like all great opportunists, he is never so dangerous as when he seems dormant. Each of his goals, however, was facilitated by the inadequacy of the Argentine full backs failing to stop balls being crossed first from the right by Steven Gerrard, then from the left by Joe Cole, who, in his brief appearance as a substitute made a very strong claim for permanent inclusion.

Curiously enough, Eriksson has blundered with Bridge before in an Argentinian context. Back in Sapporo in the 2002 World Cup, England were leading Argentina 1-0 when Eriksson perversely took off Owen who'd been tormenting the Argentine defence just as he had in the 1998 World Cup and had, just as in '98, procured a penalty, putting on Bridge; as a kind of supplementary left sided defender. Thus conceding the initiative to an Argentine team, which so nearly took advantage of it.

While England were winning in Geneva, Brazil, surely still the true favourites for the competition, were knocking in eight goals in Dubai against the feeble United Emirates. A result with no true significance, but the Brazilians have so much fire power that it is hard to see many opponents capable of containing them in Germany. Ronaldo, Adriano, Ronaldinho, Robinho, Kaka; a chilling prospect for any opponent.

Then there is the resurgence of Italy, as evidenced by their 3-1 win in Amsterdam over Holland. Marcello Lippi seems at last to be getting things right, and he has a potent new strike force in Alberto Gilardino, now at Milan, having left Parma, and the towering Luca Toni, something of a late developer, now the toast of Florence, where he modestly refuses to be compared with their previous hero and idol, the prolific Argentine Gabriel Batistuta, to whom the fans put up a statue.

Alex Del Piero's recapture of form gives the attack balance on the left, Francesco Totti as the so-called three quarterist is a threat just behind the front line, the midfield is solid and strong, the central defence of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta hugely experienced. That was Holland's first defeat since Marco van Basten took over the team, and it lacked such stars as Ruud van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben, giving hostages to fortune in the shape of so many young, relatively inexperienced players, at least at international level. But I think it will still have something to say in Germany.

And what about Germany? How will the Germans speak for themselves? On that Saturday, they managed a dour 0-0 draw in Paris against a rapidly fading French team, but there is too much of a burden on the Protean Michael Ballack in midfield. I cannot see either of these teams having much of a say next June, even if the Germans, as when they won the title in 1974, do have home advantage. It will hardly be sufficient.