Football: England's chance for new start

Euro 2000: Hoddle's men aim to make light of poor record against Sweden and lay to rest the ghosts of St-Etienne
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND WILL tonight attempt to lay to rest the mixed memories of St- Etienne, and the recent controversies over book-writing and faith-healing, to return to what they do best: playing a game of football. It is an important one too, the first and potentially most difficult step on the way to the 2000 European Championships.

With a young and developing team this is a competition England can realistically hope to win but first they must qualify from a group that also includes Bulgaria, Luxembourg and, as usual, Poland. With Bulgaria fading as a force Sweden would appear the main rivals and a win here would put England in charge of Group Five. Such a goal is attainable but not easy.

Sweden, while not qualifying for the World Cup, have made rapid progress under their new coach Tommy Soderberg and have a promising side laced with youth and leavened with experience. It is more than six hours since they conceded a goal and, in Henrik Larsson and Jorgen Pettersson they have strikers very capable of scoring one.

Nevertheless England, despite their troubled preparation, poor post-War record against Sweden (three wins in 12) and traditional September sloth, ought to return with at least a point. Though definitely without the suspended David Beckham, and possibly shorn of Tony Adams, they should have the quality and confidence to continue their good away record under Glenn Hoddle.

Adams, said Hoddle, is "50-50" after tweaking an ankle in training. This is probably true though, following Hoddle's admission that he lies about injuries in order to confuse opposing coaches it cannot be guaranteed.

Hoddle took considerable offence yesterday when asked if Adams was really injured. In the circumstances it was a reasonable question though, given Adams' recent criticism of Hoddle in his serialised autobiography, the subject is a particularly sensitive one.

Paul Merson is also said to have a thigh strain though that should not stop him taking his place on the bench. Steve McManaman is out, having returned to Liverpool for treatment on a long-standing Achilles injury.

As Martin Keown is the obvious replacement for Adams, with Gareth Southgate moving to the centre of the defence, the main selection poser is in midfield where a balance must be stuck between frustrating the Swedes and providing a platform for Michael Owen and Alan Shearer.

Paul Ince, Darren Anderton and, for want of competition, Graeme Le Saux, are assured of their places. Paul Scholes, despite a quiet start to the season, should play to link the front pair with the midfield and prevent the team getting stretched out. The other place would have gone to Nicky Butt but, following his withdrawal, it is between Rob Lee and Jamie Redknapp. Hoddle is usually keen to keep things tight in away matches, which would suggest that Lee's industry would be preferred, but the coach might well take a chance on Redknapp's long passing.

"We've come here to win but if we get a draw that's still a good result," said Hoddle yesterday. "Sweden are a good technical side, they play through the pitch, have a solid defence and players of class in the last third.

"If we can get a confident start and a win under our belts the World Cup slowly disappears. It will always be there as a magical memory but we have to look forward. This is a way of starting again."

Hoddle's opposite number said he did not intend to man-mark Owen though in Leicester's Pontus Kaamark he has that option. Other British-based players expected to play are Roland Nilsson and Magnus Hedman of Coventry, Celtic's Larsson and Rangers' Joachim Bjorklund.

Perhaps naively Soderberg and Nilsson allowed themselves to be drawn into the debate on Hoddle's recent problems and quotes such as "I do not believe in faith healing, I am more realistic" from the coach, and "some of the players laugh about it" from Nilsson are likely to have been given the full treatment in this morning's English tabloids.

This will add extra spice to the match, though Soderberg may well be right when it said the issues would only have affected England's preparation for the "30 or 40 minutes they were asked about it at press conferences".

At least the media pre-occupation with healing and revealing has taken the spotlight off the supporters, of whom more than 3,000 are expected.

Security is low key, though the Swedes warily remember that England's last visit, for the 1992 Championships, saw rioting in Malmo.

Stockholm, where England later lost to Sweden in that tournament, was undisturbed but still gained a notorious place in English football lore.

Described locally as the "Venice of the North" it has a more earthy claim to fame as the birthplace of the Turnip. That is the nickname Graham Taylor was lumbered with after the headline "Swedes 2, Turnips 1" appeared following England's defeat.

Having already been pictorially lampooned as a chocolate teapot this week Glenn Hoddle will be eager to avoid, to coin his favourite phrase, being portrayed with his vegetable head on. That ignominy should be avoided and, though a first win over Sweden since Roger Hunt's goal defeated them at Wembley in 1968 is possible, a dull but useful draw is more likely.


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Man Utd



Referee: P Collina (Italy)

Kick-off: 5pm BST