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KING ARTHUR  Wednesday, June 06, 2001  16:37 GMT

WONDERFUL ... Sven loves being England boss

LISTENING to Sven Goran Eriksson here in Athens yesterday, you gained the distinct impression that, right now, this man can do no wrong.

If he had said he was playing Steve McManaman in goal and David Seaman on the left of midfield, I doubt whether anyone would have raised an eyebrow, let alone gasped in amazement.

The vast majority of his admiring audience of sportswriters would more likely have nodded their approval and strengthened the belief that England will beat Greece tonight, come what may.

Because, you see, after four straight victories and 10 days in the Spanish sunshine, what Sven says is gospel and the Keegan days are but a distant and irritating memory.

What a difference six months make. Suddenly, all the serious doubts about the level of talent among this country's young footballers have been replaced by jubilant forecasts about overtaking Germany and qualifying for the World Cup finals outright.

Well, we'll see. But, for the moment, the nation's first foreign coach is able to reflect on a mightily impressive start to his career in what many regard to be the impossible job. The man himself is clearly revelling in it.

The Swede who was greeted with a combination of suspicion and resentment in some quarters is showing every sign of turning out to be Mr Wonderful.

That was his word, incidentally, not mine. Wonderful.

That is the way he described his first half-year in charge of the national side that crept home from the Low Countries last summer, dispatched from the European Championship as first-round failures.

It was an enlightening experience to hear the man assessing his own first steps in the international arena.

It was also easy to understand why he has had such a profound effect on the players he has gathered around him.

There is no rushed or unconsidered answer to any question.

He takes his time and picks his words with care - not always to the delight of assembled hacks eager for the quotable quote, perhaps, but cool and carefully calculated. And he can spot banana skins a mile off.

But there was one moment when his defence dropped slightly yesterday, when sheer personal joy produced a spontaneous response.

And that left no one in the slightest doubt that he relishes every aspect of leading the football team of his adopted country.

It was when he was asked about the enormity of the job and whether the public attention and expectations had taken him by surprise.

Eriksson's reaction was immediate and heartening:

"I like it very much. I now know better than I did six months ago. Whenever England move, it is a huge affair. A lot of writing, talking and so many supporters. It is wonderful."

That might not be the first adjective that Kevin Keegan would choose. Or Glenn Hoddle. Or so many of his predecessors.

But four victories and, particularly, that stunning opening 45 minutes against Mexico, can be persuasive.

"This is different from club football," admitted Eriksson. "It might scare you but, so far, I am not afraid. It is one of the reasons I took the job. It is an extremely big job."

In reality, of course, he has barely begun and there is no temptation to believe he is already a success. He far prefers to say: "We have done well, played good football with good results.

"But I believe a successful England should be something much, much more. Let's hope we are going to the World Cup" he added.

Eriksson fools himself about nothing, despite the irrefutable fact that he has been warmly accepted for the most part.

Acceptance - like a winning streak - tends to be a fleeting thing and after naming other examples, he referred to the last time England won a tournament 35 years ago.

He stressed: "You know how it is in football. You had a manager who won the World Cup in '66 but soon he was not accepted any more. You are accepted as long as you are doing well."

Eriksson has been lucky at times.

His first match, against a Spanish side who hardly bust a gut at Villa Park, was followed by qualifying victories over Finland and Albania that both provided embarrassing moments.

Then came Mexico in another friendly - the kind of encounter on which it can be dangerous to base assumptions.

Yet England played football of such compelling quality at Pride Park that tonight's match in the Olympic Stadium was regarded as a foregone conclusion.

Dangerous. The Greeks only scraped a one-goal win over Albania last weekend and have already lost at home to the Germans. They say the arena will be barely half-full tonight so it will not be the most hostile atmosphere ever created.

But every team in the world wants to beat England. Yes, even though our global rating hardly counts us among the best on earth.

Greeks don't bear gifts once the ball has been placed on the centre spot.

If the England team reflects the mood and the self-assurance of the England coach, then they will prevail in what Eriksson describes as his toughest match so far.

David Seaman won't play on the left flank after all.

If it's to be McManaman, then don't discount the probability of him producing his best performance in an England shirt.

Because, with Mr Wonderful in charge, all things are possible.

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