Football: Venables has to start his final plans

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The Independent Online
Paul Merson hopes to complete his rehabilitation while Paul Ince seeks reconciliation when Terry Venables names his latest England squad today.

Already, though, the door to next summer's European Championship squad is closing, with next Tuesday's Wembley friendly against qualifiers Portugal the coach's own deadline for experimentation.

It is still ajar for proven players like Tottenham's Darren Anderton and Liverpool's Jamie Redknapp when they recover from injury, and Venables will never shut it completely on a surge of form like that which has shot Nottingham Forest's Steve Stone to the forefront this season. However, now the time for consolidation and concentration begins, distilling the experience of his first 13 games and the 39 players he has used into a tight, tactical group through a fresh programme of New Year friendlies.

It is a critical period. Just hours before England play the Portuguese, they will be given their challenge for 1998, with the draw in Paris for the next World Cup qualifiers. Five days after the Wembley game, England will finally focus on their first competitive fixtures for more than two years when the draw is made in Birmingham for next summer's finals.

Displays like last month's 3-1 win against Switzerland - and just 24 hours' preparation for a game brought forward to Tuesday to avoid a clash with the Anfield play-off between the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands - are also reasons not to tinker with the squad. With Graeme Le Saux under no cloud for his Blackburn punch-up and Stone a success on his second substitute appearance, there are few vacancies, though the welcome mat will be out for Middlesbrough's Nick Barmby, who is fit to return.

Venables would like to find room, too, for Paul Merson and complete the 27-year-old Arsenal midfielder's dramatic escape from his personal problems. Recalled after injury to the squad last month, David Platt was rocked when he failed to make the team, but his excellent form should restore him against the Portuguese.

With Paul Gascoigne, Steve McManaman and Robert Lee all rising to the challenge of competition, the case for the likes of Ince or John Barnes is weakening. Indispensable little more than six months ago, before a damaging court case and a debilitating move from Manchester United to Internazionale, Ince has been out of favour since snubbing the summer Umbro Cup. Venables said last month he would give him more time to settle in Italy but, if he does not return now, he will surely fear the worst.

Already the national coach has pared down his strikeforce to five - Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand and Teddy Sheringham backed by Barmby and Peter Beardsley - with maybe another cut to come. He has to choose whether to persevere with Shearer, 21 goals for Blackburn but none for England in nine games, or give Ferdinand his head at last after 20 goals for Newcastle. Either way, Sheringham now looks the first name down on the team-sheet.

Defence, though, is once again England's great strength after the summer aberrations, with only one goal conceded in three games.