Topdog Brazil

The WORLD champions Brazil narrowly won in Russia, and are still the team to beat in the World Cup in Germany after the round of recent friendlies.

A recent spate of friendly matches gave some indication of what we may expect in the World Cup. Very little came from hosts, Germany, who were thrashed 4-1 in Florence by an Italian team which, even without the injured Francesco Totti, confirmed my belief that it should be among the frontrunners in Germany. Not that much more came from France, whose protracted unbeaten run has long seemed to me the stuff of smoke and mirrors. To lose at home even by a one-goal margin to modest Slovenia was an ominous blow. Neither Thierry Henry — in dazzling vein on either side of that match for Arsenal, first in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, then at Craven Cottage versus Fulham — nor Zinedine Zidane looked sharp. This result seemed to confirm a certain excess of recent optimism over the supposed recovery of form of Zidane, a two-goal hero of the 1998 World Cup Final, with Real Madrid.

Brazil, though they won 1-0 in Russia with Ronaldo scoring the winner, must be as disappointed as Real Madrid with the waning form of the young Robinho. The defending champions must still, surely, be the favourites even though the once talismanic Ronaldo, who came so splendidly to life in the last World Cup after years of struggling with knee injury, has fallen badly out of form and favour; again at Real Madrid. That still, of course, leaves Adriano, Kaka and Ronaldinho. But manager Carlos Alberto Parreira may be relieved to hear that the veteran right-back Cafu is determined, back from injury, to recapture his place in the team. When Arsenal won in Madrid it was all too clear, as one had suspected before, that Cicinho, the right-back expensively transferred from Sao Paolo last January, is so much better overlapping than defending.

What about England? They squeezed out their second narrow, last-gasp win of the season against South American opposition. In Geneva, Argentina were beaten, thanks to the incisive opportunism of Michael Owen. A broken metatarsal kept him out of the friendly against Uruguay in Liverpool, but thanks to the lively opportunism of Chelsea's Joe Cole, defeat was turned in the second half to a 2-1 victory.

I have admired Cole ever since I saw him playing, with delightful skill, enterprise and intelligence, for the West Ham United youth team. I am still not sure that moving across London to Chelsea has been a wholly beneficial move for him. First under `The Tinkerman', Claudio Ranieri, he was in and out of a team that constantly metamorphosed.

Then came the autocratic, loquacious Jose Mourinho, spending millions of his Russian owner's money, which meant that Cole was still less certain of a place. When he did gain one, it was all too often to find himself damned with faint praise. Especially, one remembers a match early last season against Liverpool when he, a born inside forward even if he mostly seems to appear now for both club and country on the flanks, came on as a solitary, substitute striker; and scored the decisive goal. After which, bewilderingly, Mourinho castigated him for not dropping back to help the defence! Had he done so, who would there have been upfield to move on to any clearance? Early in the present season, when he had played impressively at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho did indeed praise him, assuring us that thanks to following his own wise counsels, Cole had greatly improved. To which Cole meekly and diplomatically acceded.

On his debut for England at Leeds, he was responsible for the English goal but gave one away to an ultimately victorious Italian side by losing the ball in a vulnerable position. Culpable no doubt, but this is always the danger with talented ball players who, as that famous little Yorkshire coach of Sweden, George Raynor, told me long ago in Rome, "are important because they create unorthodox situations."

Against Uruguay at Anfield, Cole made the equaliser from the left wing for the lofty Peter Crouch, turning outside the defender to curl in an excellent cross with his right foot.

He scored the winner after a splendid true winger's burst down the right — the kind of thing, alas, which you will never see from David Beckham (whom he substituted at half time) — saw the ball pulled back for Cole to score. Moral: he need to be given a pretty free hand, but if you have him notionally on one flank, you need a genuine right-winger on the other.

England will plainly be stronger when they have Owen and Frank Lampard back. But Rio Ferdinand, by his own admission, made worrying errors in defence, where neither full-back convinces me. I still would like to see Gareth Batty, capable as either left-back or left midfielder in the squad, given his form for Aston Villa. But though Sven-Goran `Quarter Final' Eriksson saw him, as I did, recently playing well at Charlton, in both roles the door seems closed.

Such has been the brilliance of 18-year-old right-winger Lionel Messi at Barcelona, given the expert support of playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, you feel that Argentina could make progress in Germany, though I'm still not convinced by their defence. Paraguay looked highly competent both in defence and attack — thwarted only by Paul Jones's fine goalkeeping against Wales in Cardiff — and will give England a run for their money in their opening match.

Holland were disappointing at home, winning 1-0 to Ecuador, but controversial winger Arjen Robben can turn any game. Which brings me back to Italy, whose striking partnership of Luca Toni of Fiorentina, powerful and prolific late developer, and Alberto Gilardino, now at Milan, backed by promising young Roma midfielder De Rossi, must have high hopes. But can they topple Brazil?