'Awful' England defence face Eriksson wrath

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The Independent Online

Sven Goran Eriksson is now one defeat away from the end of his England regime and yesterday he fought the accusation that none of his squad - even his captain - is immune from being dropped with the declaration: "I am not married to David Beckham". But it was his defence for whom Eriksson saved his most biting criticism.

Ecuador await in the first knock-out round on Sunday and Eriksson began his preparations with a simple admission about his defenders' performance against Sweden in the 2-2 draw on Tuesday. "Gentleman, that was awful," he said. "First on the table will be defending set pieces. I'm quite sure it will not happen again."

Mindful that this might be the last England team he picks, Eriksson has some serious decisions to make. The formation of his team is the greatest quandary, but it is understood that Peter Crouch may yet be given a place alongside Wayne Rooney in attack in a 4-4-2 system, and whether Owen Hargreaves keeps his place will rely greatly upon the fitness of Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville.

With Steven Gerrard returning, Hargreaves' only chance of keeping his place would be as a right-back, with Jamie Carragher covering for Rio Ferdinand at centre-half. Both are due to train today, but neither can be considered as certainties to play and, in Michael Owen's absence, it is perhaps appropriate that, as Eriksson's reign enters its closing act, he has still not settled upon his best formation.

He was uncharacteristically scathing about his defence's performance in the second half against Sweden. They conceded the first from a header by Marcus Allback, who was being marked by Beckham when he connected with Tobias Linderoth's corner. The late equaliser came from Erik Edman's throw, which bounced three times before Henrik Larsson poked it in, and was a particular source of anguish for Eriksson.

"It's very difficult [to understand], we always prepare set -pieces, attacking and defending," Eriksson said. "In the dressing-room there is a board set out with the pitch drawn on it. It is written there which players they have to mark and all the positions they should stay in.

"I don't know what happened. We did it poorly. That's OK in a game like Sweden, but it can't be OK in the future. It doesn't matter whose fault it is. We defended poorly. I can take the blame for that, no problem. We defended badly and we can't deny that. It happens in football. We have to work with it. I'm sure it will not happen again." As he so often has been forced to do in the most recent years of his England regime, Eriksson defended his captain Beckham and his place in the team. The England manager's loyalty is not in doubt but Beckham's contrasting form of late - the second half against Sweden was one of his poorest performances in recent memory - means that the issue is once again near the top of the agenda.

The reports yesterday in The Sun of a dispute between Beckham and Steven Gerrard have been so vehemently denied by the Football Association that Eriksson was not called upon to comment. But increasingly he is reacting with anger to suggestions that his captain is not worth his place.

He last substituted Beckham in a high-profile match in the 2002 World Cup group match against Sweden when the team captain was struggling for fitness. Asked if he would do the same again, Eriksson said: "I'm prepared to do whatever I need to do if I see things are going wrong, whatever is required." He added: "I don't know if you have talked to most people, but I think most people think he [Beckham] should be in the team. I think so. To pass the ball you [Beckham] must have the ball. If not, you can't pass it. Somebody has to pass the ball to him.

"I have taken off David Beckham before. I am not married to him, even if you think I am. I'm not even engaged to him. If I think he's not doing the job, yes [I would leave him out]. The same with him as the others.

"He's the captain, but he is treated the same as all the other players in every way - at the dinner table, on the bus, tactically, in training, in a match. He doesn't have any favours just because he's the captain."

Last night the England team were also treated to a 30-minute programme showing the reaction to their World Cup finals back home. Created by BBC News 24 at the request of Eriksson's assistant, Steve McClaren, it was intended to convey to the players the fervour with which their progress is being followed in England.

It included reaction to goals in four different cities, and had messages from the Prime Minister Tony Blair, British troops in Basra in Iraq, Tim Henman and the England cricket captain, Michael Vaughan. The cast of Coronation Street was also drafted in, as was a parrot who, FA sources said, was a perfect mimic of Rooney. Tomorrow we should hear from the real thing: the England striker is expected to speak for the first time since returning to fitness.

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