Football: Wilkinson's casualty list lengthens

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ENGLAND'S HOPES of winning through to the European Under-21 Championship finals have been dealt a severe blow by the injury list confronting the coach, Howard Wilkinson.

Seven key players are already out of Sunday's play-off with Yugoslavia in Luxembourg and Wilkinson faces the prospect of another two joining the casualty list.

It is the fact that so many of Wilkinson's most important figures are playing first-team football in the Premiership so early in their careers that has left him with his headache. The Leeds trio of Jonathon Woodgate (cut eye and concussion), Lee Bowyer (groin) and Michael Bridges (back) have all been ruled out following their side's 2-0 defeat at Wimbledon on Sunday, as have the Aston Villa pair Lee Hendrie and Darius Vassell with calf and hamstring injuries respectively.

The Derby wing-back Seth Johnson has a back problem while the Everton defender Michael Ball picked up a hamstring injury in the 1-1 draw at Newcastle at the weekend.

There are also question marks over the captain Frank Lampard, who has an ankle injury, and the Manchester United forward Luke Chadwick, who is struggling with a knee problem. Lampard's West Ham colleague Joe Cole has been drafted into the squad, as have Liverpool's Danny Murphy, the Wolves defender Lee Naylor and Gareth Barry of Villa.

But it is perhaps significant that players such as Manchester United's John Curtis, the Arsenal defender Matthew Upson and Leeds' Danny Mills, who all reported fit, have been used sparingly in top-flight football so far this season.

Wilkinson was philosophical about his losses yesterday but hinted at his concern over the extent to which the nation's top youngsters are shouldering huge responsibilities.

"All nine have been checked out. We are talking genuine injuries here," he said. "Obviously one is reluctant to jump to conclusions, but it's a fact that, apart from Jonathon Woodgate, eight of the injuries are the result of repetitive stress.

"All the players involved are regular first-team players for their clubs. It highlights how important it is to protect young talent."

Also facing injury problems is the Czech Republic coach, Jozef Chovanec, who has been forced to replace his Liverpool midfielders Patrick Berger and Vladimir Smicer with Slavaia Prague's Ivo Ulich and Martin Cizek of TSV 1860 Munich in his squad for Saturday's friendly against the Netherlands.

Smicer will miss the match in Eindhoven because of a hamstring injury, while Berger has influenza.

The Sunderland midfielder Stefan Schwarz has been named Sweden's Footballer of the Year. Schwarz, 30, was a key figure in the Swedes' qualification for Euro 2000.