Football: Swiss timing preoccupies Hoddle

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ENGLAND are in Switzerland today as part of their preparations for a World Cup campaign which should open in 80F conditions in Marseilles in June. Yesterday they woke up to a blanket of snow.

It may have turned Berne's medieval city centre into a living picture postcard but it was not what Glenn Hoddle wished to see when he pulled back the curtains.

Having lost nine players from his squad - and had another seven unavailable when it was picked - this was all the England coach needed. "It was in the 60s when we sent someone out here a fortnight ago," he said, "but you can't control the weather."

The game is not thought to be under threat (snow is hardly unique here) but the pitch is likely to be wet if not frozen, not good news for Premiership managers concerned about further injuries or a national coach trying to assess players.

Yet while the match will present a rather different challenge to Tunisia in 12 weeks' time it should be a good test of temperament and technique. The Swiss, in their first match under new management, are expected to provide lively opposition. Despite the injury problems England can still field a useful side and Hoddle is likely to try one or two experiments.

One of these is expected to be the forward pairing of Michael Owen and Alan Shearer. Another is a first start for the 19-year-old West Ham defender Rio Ferdinand. A third possibility is the use of a back four since the Swiss are expected to adopt an

Ajax-style 3-4-3 formation.

Hoddle's defensive options are limited by having only one regular full- back, Andy Hinchcliffe, in the squad and he must pass a fitness test on his sore Achilles. Either Steve McManaman or Paul Merson will play in the "hole" behind the strikers, with McManaman also a possible wing-back.

"Ideally you experiment within a structure but this might be a good game to throw people in and see how they handle it," Hoddle said. "There are not many opportunities left for players to take their chance so my message for those playing tomorrow isto take this one. Every player in the squad has a chance: there are only about 12 to 13 certainties.

"I have a 22 at the back of my mind but it is not cast in stone. So many players could be injured and I don't want to disappoint myself. I would like to play my first-choice XI soon but that depends on injuries."

Owen, naturally, is the centre of attention, with his picture appearing in many of the local papers. Hoddle, understandably, said he was "still on trial" for a World Cup place, and was not yet among the dozen or so certainties for France.

"He will be ready in two or three years, I know that about him and Rio. What I need to find out is will they be ready in two or three months. Michael has a lot to learn, he needs time to develop. He has played a lot of football and I need to see how sharp he is at the end of the season. He could be a very, very good as a substitute."

Shearer, as ever, was not prepared to express a preference as to his striking partner but he said of a link-up with Owen: "I don't think we would let anybody down. He's an interesting player who's got pace, takes everything in his stride and certainly did not look out of place for England. He is ahead of me at that age, more prolific a scorer and a hell of a prospect. You'd never think he was 18."

Shearer, who would not talk about the Newcastle situation, except to dismiss speculation that they might be relegated, added: "Some partnerships click, some have to be worked at. Me and Les Ferdinand had to do a lot of work but we ended up scoring 50 goals between us."

The Swiss failed to qualify for the World Cup and, having been unable to attract either Tottenham's Christian Gross or Dortmund's Ottmar Hitzfeld, have appointed Gilbert Gress, of Neuchatel Xamax, as their new coach.

This is his first match in charge and he is expected to rely on a nucleus of experience, notably the talented playmaker Ciriaco Sforza who has inspired Kaiserslauten to the top of the Bundesliga, and Stephane Chapuisat, whose goal put Dortmund into the European Cup semi-finals last week.

Two Premiership defenders, Stephane Henchoz and Ramon Vega, are expected to feature while Patrick Muller, an attacking midfielder and a transfer target for Milan, is being lined up for a debut. Marco Grassi, who hit the bar during the 1-1 draw with England in Euro '96, will lead the attack if the prolific Kubilay Turkyilmaz fails a late fitness test.

Having lost their last match at home to Chile England would like to avoid defeat but Hoddle accurately regards the performance as more important than the result. "The Chile match may prove to be a blessing in disguise as it has dampened down some ofthe euphoria. I want to be positive but realistic. Some people had begun to think we only had to pull our shirts on to lift the World Cup. It is the performance which is most important but if we perform we will win. If we don't, Switzerland are strong enough to spring a surprise."

SWITZERLAND (probable): Corminbouef (Neuchatel Xamax); Vega (Tottenham Hotspur), Yakin (VfB Stuttgart), Henchoz (Blackburn Rovers); Vogel (Grasshopper Zurich), Wicky (Werder Bremen), Sforza (Kaiserslauten), Muller (Servette Geneva); Sera (Servette Geneva), Turkyilmaz (Grasshopper Zurich) or Grassi (AS Cannes), Chapuisat (Borussia Dortmund).

ENGLAND (probable): Flowers (Blackburn Rovers); Keown (Arsenal), Ferdinand (West Ham United), Southgate (Aston Villa); Lee (Newcastle United), Ince (Liverpool), Batty (Newcastle United), Hinchcliffe (Sheffield Wednesday); Merson (Middlesbrough) or McManaman (Liverpool); Owen (Liverpool), Shearer (Newcastle United).