World Cup hints

FRIENDLY games nowadays mean very little, not least when they are played in the midst of a welter of European matches for clubs, and at a time when Championships are being decided. Nevertheless, you could glean a certain amount from the abundance of friendlies which recently took place on a late March Wednesday evening.

England and Sven Goran Eriksson, for example, hardly improved their World Cup credentials in Leeds, but Italy perhaps did. Any faint significance the match might have had was further diminished when Eriksson, clearly bowing to the wishes of the leading English clubs, decided, not for the first time, to make a fiasco of the second half by sending on no fewer than nine substitutes. True they probably exerted themselves somewhat more than the first choice 11 who had ambled through a dismally boring first half.

Even then you had cause to wonder about Erikkson's choices. True he had to do without two key midfield players in Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard but to replace them with Nicky Butt and Frank Lampard seemed weird. Butt is essentially a pedestrian player in the Manchester United set up, one who can win the ball but never uses it to any great advantage. As for Lampard, he has never looked as good a player since his summer transfer from West Ham United across London to Chelsea, which became inevitable when Hammers forced his father Frank senior out of his job as assistant manager, having sacked his brother-in-law and the actual manager, Harry Redknapp.

Lampard's form for much of the season has been lamentable. True he has definitely improved in more recent weeks but never has he looked the part as an England playmaking midfielder. On the other hand, what can be said of one of the chief aspirants for such a role, little Joe Cole of West Ham United, still a mere 20-year-old, and a curiously inconsistent figure in that second half.

As one who has long admired this clever, ball playing midfielder and placed the highest hopes in his international future, I have to say that watching him from the Press box at Leeds did give me pause. Twice he would lose the ball. The first time, winning it back from an incredibly arrogant and careless Alessandro Nesta, guilty of trying to backheel, Cole - having initially tried to take on Nesta rather than passing - coolly put through Robbie Fowler to score the opening goal.

Alas, he would also give away the equaliser. This, when, once more trying presumptuously to beat an opponent rather than pass, but this time in a dangerously deep position, he lost the ball which was put through for Vincenzo Montella to score with a glorious drive.

As it happened I was at West Ham only three days later to see Cole start way out on the left of midfield versus Ipswich Town. He did seem isolated at first but the longer the game went on the more influential he became, often moving into the centre and later in the march on to the right. His manager Glenn Roeder defended him afterwards from what he regarded as unfair criticism, declaring that it would be a few years before Cole reached his peak, while Eriksson, after the Leeds match, had refused to condemn Cole, insisting that everybody made mistakes.

For Italy the Leeds game had happier portents. Not that you could judge my old friend Gianni Trapattoni's team any more than you could usefully assess England's. For one thing it lacked Christian Vieri, a powerful star of the 1998 World Cup and of the 2000 Euro Championship, and if fit almost sure to be a salient striker in the coming World Cup. But the match did confirm the dazzling present form of Roma's Vincente Montella, physically so much smaller and slighter than Vieri so that it seemed as if his team mate Del Vecchio was preferred to him in the first half, because of his greater height, and consequent aerial power. But Montella got both goals for Italy, the second from the penalty spot, and looked delightfully dangerous.

Montella missed months of this season through injury as did Milan's Demetrio Albertini but his form too when he arrived in the second half was highly encouraging for "Trap." His passing was as shrewd and effective as ever and it does look as if this highly experienced player will lay strong claim to a place in the World Cup side.

In Dublin, Ireland, even without the ever powerful and influential Roy Keane, astonishingly brushed the supposedly strong Denmark team aside, winning 3-0. In the process the blond Blackburn Rovers attacker Damien Duff, this time operating chiefly from the left flank, showed what an accomplished international player he has become while Robbie Keane, though he has spent most of his time on the bench for Leeds this season, was a dynamic centre forward. On this form, the Danes are going to have a great deal of trouble in a group sure to be won by France.

And with Argentina looking vulnerable in the air in defence and held to a draw in Switzerland by Cameroon, the French become ever clearer favourites to retain their title, even though, alas, they seem likely to be without Robert Pires who injured himself at Highbury in what seemed the most harmless of stumbles. They simply routed a pathetic Scottish team, managed for the first time by Berti Vogts, whose choice I've never understood. He seemed a busted flush both with the German national team and later at Bayern Leverkusen. After this 5-0 disaster he had the gall to criticise a Scottish side which he had filled with young international beginners. One remembers his lament that good youngsters just weren't emerging in Germany. Well the same holds good for Scotland which makes you wonder why he ever took the job. Plus, he quarrelled with his 30-year-old reserve 'keeper Douglas who'd come to Paris while his wife was to give birth, promised a game which he never got.