Football: First Stop Suffolk as Sven Starts His Defining Season ; England V Croatia the Road Begins in Ipswich but the Question Is Whether It Will End in Portugal or West London

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A friendly at home to Croatia in sleepy Suffolk on Wednesday is the low-key way in which England will begin an international season soon to reach a much higher pitch - one which could encompass anything from a strong challenge for the European Championship to failure to qualify and the resignation of Sven Goran Eriksson.

Forced into a public statement emphasising his devotion to the job after unwisely taking tea with Chelsea's new owner, Roman Abramovich, Eriksson may find that commitment waning if things do not go well either in the next three months, or the finals next summer. Sir Alex Ferguson's determination to stay with Manchester United, where Eriksson might have succeeded him 15 months ago, has closed off one extremely attractive vacancy, but brewing up in Belgravia with his friend Mr Abramovich so soon after the Russian's arrival emphasised how strongly placed he would be if Claudio Ranieri does not join together all the pieces of the Chelsea jigsaw with sufficient dexterity.

After a promising start - no more than that - in Zilina last Wednesday, Ranieri faces rather more of a test at Liverpool today. Chelsea then have a kind run of fixtures that the manager will be expected to exploit before visiting Arsenal in mid-October, just after England return from the second of their two critical autumn away games, in Turkey.

The first of them, in Macedonia on 6 September, should not be underestimated. The assumption has been that England will win it and then need "only" a draw in Istanbul to qualify as group winners. But against opponents who drew 2-2 at Southampton last year, and in a traditionally bad early- season period for British players, failure to secure victory would necessitate winning away to Turkey in order to avoid the hazards of a two-leg play- off. (The assumption has to be that the two contenders will both win their other remaining match, against Liechtenstein, who visit Old Trafford on 10 September). Although the Turks were beaten, just, at Sunderland in April, they have already taken six points from Macedonia.

Ideally, Eriksson would have done without an international this week. But to go straight into the Macedonia game was deemed too much of a risk, so another Balkan sparring partner has been found. After Serbia and Montenegro and then Slovakia at the end of last season, England should at least know what to expect.

The lessons of those 2-1 victories, at Leicester and Middlesbrough respectively, when David Beckham was unavailable, were that Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard remain key figures; that Wayne Rooney - as his club manager has always maintained - still has much to learn; and that there are alarming defensive weaknesses at full- back.

In the short period since then, there has still been time for the combative Gerrard to get himself sent off for Liverpool after being wound up by Turkish opposition in a pre-season friendly, which hardly bodes well for Istanbul. …