Football: The one and only concern for Hoddle

Ian Ridley suggests England's fears are coming down to a familiar figure - Gazza
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The Independent Online
NOW it gets serious and the England squad that Glenn Hoddle will announce on Tuesday for the match against Portugal at Wembley eight days later is likely to reflect as much. The World Cup finals will then be only seven weeks away, and the experiments will probably have finished, so the final 22 for France should be in there somewhere.

It is also safe to assume that the minor injuries which saw the withdrawal of eight of the 26 Hoddle chose for Switzerland last month will have healed sufficiently for them to be considered, though tomorrow's round of club matches will be a concern for the coach. To miss out on an international squad at this stage, with only three friendlies to follow before England kick offagainst Tunisia in Marseille on 15 June, could mean missing out altogether.

Such a prospect is surely unthinkable when it comes to Paul Gascoigne, whose singular skills - or the memory of them - remain appealing, especially in the light of England's ordinariness in the 1-1 draw with the Swiss in Berne. It could just be, however, that as a result of the events of the past week Gascoigne will go into the finals without an international match under his belt since Cameroon at Wembley last November.

Gascoigne's gashed foot, sustained against Sheffield United on Tuesday, healed sufficiently for him to start yesterday's game at home to Bury, and he is expected to be included in Hoddle's squad, but that assumes that the wound does not suffer further damage.

Then the question of whether Gascoigne appears against Portugal depends on whether he negotiates Middlesbrough's match against Manchester City next weekend. Given his recent record of injury, it is by no means certain.

Should Gascoigne be available, though, it can be safely assumed that he will start against Portugal, as Hoddle may well not get another chance to field him before France. It is looking increasingly likely that Boro' will be consigned to the First Division play-offs, which could mean him missing the matches against Saudi Arabia at Wembley on Saturday 23 May and Morocco in Casablanca on 27 May, since the play-off final is on the Monday between the internationals.

In addition, Gascoigne is unlikely after a Wembley final to be in a condition then to travel for England's match against Belgium, also in Casablanca, on 29 May, four days after the play-off final and four before squads have to be registered.

By then, other players could have thrust themselves forward for inclusion and Hoddle may have decided against putting faith in a figure whose injuries are coming along even more frequently these days. Indeed, watching him against Sheffield United, every challenge by and on him prompted concern.

The situation with Gascoigne is likely to be the one which most occupies Hoddle over the next 10 days but, like the previous three England managers, he has considerable experience of that. Otherwise, this month's exercise should prove rather less fretful than the last.

David Seaman and Tony Adams should be fit to form integral parts of England's spine, the latter for his 50th cap, and indeed the team who drew against Italy in Rome - and who remain Hoddle's best - should all be available. The one exception is the still-injured Ian Wright, though Alan Shearer's return more than makes up for that.

Other concerns should be minor, even allowing for the absence of Tim Flowers with a shoulder injury. Sol Campbell's travails in Tottenham's season of struggle will not exclude him and Hoddle is probably grateful that Manchester United have rested Teddy Sheringham lately.

And there has also been the heartening news from Old Trafford that Paul Scholes does not now need an operation on his troublesome knee, and that recent rest has healed the injury, making him available to England not just for next week but also for the finals themselves.

Indeed, unless weariness forces withdrawals - unlikely at this crucial stage - or there should be carnage tomorrow, it should all look rosier for Hoddle this month. He should now be able to work with all his first choices, even if the squad assembles this time only three days before the game.

Hoddle may even call up a few extra players who figure in his peripheral thinking, just to attend the talks and video sessions. And if Gascoigne is the only real worry, then Hoddle will not worry too much.

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