Cole no ordinary Joe now

 

England - 4 Northern Ireland - 0: The rest of us regretted the hour pilfered from our sleep at the weekend but the clocks did not go anything like forward enough for these England players. The squad would love to have a sheaf of pages ripped from the calendar so that they found themselves in the spring of 2006, standing on the approach road to the World Cup finals.

A victory over any team with three digits in their Fifa ranking will never be proof of greatness but the display at Old Trafford did reawaken a fascination with the potential of Sven-Goran Eriksson's side. It is exasperating that there will be no challenges to stretch them before June of next year.

They have to be diligent to keep ahead of a consistent Poland in the Group Six qualifiers but it is virtually inconceivable that England will not be in the throes of the old agonised excitement at the 2006 World Cup.

"They know it is very difficult to beat them," Eriksson said of the soaring self-confidence. His men performed so well on Saturday that the contest with a dogged Northern Ireland melted away.

Minds were preoccupied instead by musings on, for example, Joe Cole's prospects now that he has been rewired by Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. The circuitry in his brain works faster and the error messages do not flash up so often.

His deadliness was shown when he took Tony Capaldi's misplaced pass in the 47th minute and sent a shot curling low past the left-hand of the splendid Maik Taylor for the opening goal. There was just one throwback moment from Cole all afternoon when, late in the game, he lost possession by attempting a cute touch near his own area.

At the minimum, Cole deserves more opportunities to show that he should be the automatic choice on the left flank. He will get another outing there at St James' Park on Wednesday against an Azerbaijan team in a state of internal collapse after the 8-0 humiliation by Poland.

England's line-up will be unchanged. "If they are fit they deserve to start again," said an unusually informative Eriksson.

While Cole caught the eye in his first start in a competitive match, it was impossible for one person to dominate. The whole Chelsea set radiated authority. While Northern Ireland posed no danger, John Terry was still sure and forceful enough to increase the likelihood that he will keep his place even when Sol Campbell is fit again.

In midfield, Frank Lampard engulfed the play: making tackles, embarking on long runs and hitting good passes. He even scored, when his drive deflected off the head of Colin Murdock for the closing goal.

No one is mouldering at Manchester United either and Alex Ferguson appears to have prepared a leaner and even more lethal Wayne Rooney for England. The teenager is freakishly skilled, freakishly strong, freakishly confident and blessed, more wonderfully still, with the craving to use all his gifts to devastating effect.

A bad touch put him at an awkward angle by the corner flag, hemmed in by Murdock and Capaldi, but Rooney still had the touch and power to get himself free so he could rampage along the by-line and ram over a cut-back that Baird deflected into his own net for the third goal.

Michael Owen had been close to the Northern Ireland full back and, with a predator's instinct, behaved as if he had been the scorer. If he was trying to claim a goal that belonged to someone else, it was one of the few examples of sharp poaching from the striker.

He did score England's second in the 52nd minute by stabbing home a ball that had run to him after a one-two between Lampard and Rooney, but Owen had shot lamely when put through during a first half in which England were eager for a breakthrough.

While Stamford Bridge is a development centre for England, the Bernabeu is their accident black spot. Apart from one beautiful free-kick, David Beckham was again nondescript.

He was the focus of attention purely for the incident before the interval when the coach Steve McClaren came down to discuss with Eriksson the undisciplined captain's penchant for wandering in-field when he had been instructed to stay wide and tease out the Northern Ireland defence.

Steven Gerrard was a more lasting concern for England. Asked to take up a deeper role to Lampard's in midfield, he frequently gave away possession. For a holding player, that was dereliction of duty.

The England side had reason to be pleased but there was nothing at all to make them complacent about the challenges to come.

ENGLAND: Robinson, G Neville, Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole,Beckham (Dyer 72), Lampard, Gerrard (HarGreaves, 72 mins), J Cole,Rooney (Defoe, 80 mins), Owen. Subs Not Used: James, Carragher, King, Heskey. Goals: J Cole 47, Owen 52, Baird 54 og, Lampard 62.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Taylor, Baird, Hughes, Murdock, Capaldi, Doherty (Davis, 59 mins), Gillespie, Johnson, Whitley (Jones, 88 mins),Elliott, Healy (Kirk 88). Subs Not Used: Carroll, Williams, Feeney, Craigan. Booked: Johnson.

Referee: Wolfgang Stark (Ger).