As "friendlies" go, it could be more like a love-in. A depleted England, with Germany on their mind, versus something akin to a Premiership-based Holland XI, more concerned with the impending challenge of the Republic of Ireland. There will not even be Sol Campbell's presence to add spice to the occasion, his absence, according to the cynics but denied by club and country coaches, to protect the sensibilities of Arsenal's summer acquisition from the vitriol of the Tottenham fans.
Wednesday night's international at White Hart Lane, three days before the start of the Premiership season against the nation England last defeated 4-1 five years ago in Euro 96, will be less about those who have already installed themselves as "probables" in Sven Goran Erik- sson's mind and more about the "possibles": the defenders Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu and Martin Keown; Frank Lampard, Nicky Barmby and Owen Hargreaves; and Andy Cole and Alan Smith.
Nevertheless, it is a contest the England coach, boasting an unbeaten record of three World Cup qualifier victories and two friendly successes, will desperately not want to lose. As Eriksson's first lieutenant, Tord Grip, stressed: "I think it's important to have that attitude to go out and win every game. Of course, you can lose and play well. But if you lose, and maybe lose badly, it will distract you and make you a little frustrated."
The most intriguing addition is Hargreaves, the Bayern Munich midfielder whose maturity and sheer presence belies his 20 years. Hargreaves is still to commit himself to one of four nations he could represent – though he claims that "there's only been one country for me, and that's England" – but Eriksson appears likely to end any doubts about his international future by bringing him on as substitute.
After witnessing his sterling performance in last season's Champions' League final, Eriksson watched Hargreaves again in Bayern's opening game of the season against Borussia Mönchengladbach and declared that Hargreaves was "the best player on the pitch". What will also appeal to the Swede is Hargreaves' versatility. He can play right and centre of midfield, and it is not inconceivable that he could be tested on the problem left for England, although the coach may deploy Nicky Barmby there in his starting line-up in what again will be a game of two England sides.
Barmby was most impressive in his last international game, which was also Eriksson's first, the 3-0 friendly win over Spain, and in doing so, the Liverpool man scored the first goal for England under the Swede's stewardship. However, his presence, along with the 12 other Liverpool and Manchester United players in the squad, will depend on him emerging unscathed from today's Charity Shield game between the champions and the FA Cup winners. In attack, Owen will line up alongside a club team-mate, Robbie Fowler or Emile Heskey, with Andy Cole and Alan Smith on the bench.
This might have been the moment to reintroduce Chris Sutton, whose only England selection came against Cameroon as substitute in 1998. Then a Blackburn player, the striker has undergone many tribulations since, but has recaptured his confidence and scoring potential under Martin O'Neill at Celtic. Sutton could appeal to Eriksson in the long term because he is a clever player, one more in the Teddy Sheringham mould than outright predator who is often as much a provider as a finisher.
Though Sutton has been overlooked this time, Grip offered hope: "I've only seen Celtic on TV, but Sven watched the Ryan Giggs testimonial against Manchester United. He's been in the national team before, so why not? He's a good player." Though many may consider it a disadvantage for a player to be performing in the less competitive Scottish Premier League, Grip insisted that was not the case when asked about Michael Ball's future now that he has moved to Rangers from Everton. "There is a Swedish player [Henryk Larsson] who plays in Scotland and he is a regular for Sweden," Eriksson's assistant remarked wryly.
The absence of Campbell and Rio Ferdinand has offered an ideal opportunity for Gareth Southgate to restate his claims after injury, together with his club-mate Ehiogu. At one time, donning the shirt of beleaguered Middlesbrough might not have been considered the most beneficial move with an international career in mind. But suddenly it's the place to be, under the watchful and influential eye of Steve McClaren, who has returned to the England coaching hierarchy since succeeding Bryan Robson at the Riverside.
Eriksson watched the pair against Athletic Bilbao in a testimonial last Sunday and will be aware that the former Aston Villa players have developed an affinity in defence, albeit normally as components of a back three. "We've always had quite a good understanding and we're the sort of people who talk and discuss things before and after a game, and that does help bring more of a bond to the partnership," said Ehiogu.
As for Campbell, the official line is that he is afflicted by an ankle injury rather than suffering from any absence of Dutch courage about appearing in front of the fans he "deserted". When it was put to Grip that it was a diplomatic withdrawal, he retorted: "I must say I didn't think that he thought about that. He's not fit, so that's it. He [Sven] spoke to Arsène Wenger and Sol and it was agreed that it was better that he just kept training with his club." The FA spokesman Adrian Bevington interjected: "Can I say that from an FA point of view it would have never been an issue in terms of security."
Nevertheless, with Campbell due to feature in Arsenal's friendly at Barnet yesterday, it will certainly be perceived in many quarters as the former Tottenham captain being reluctant to "front it out", or his coaches making that decision for him. It is to be hoped that is not the case. Understandably, Eriksson does not want distractions at such a time, but it would be a sad day for the game if a section of supporters, with a particular grievance, in effect decided that a player should not represent his country.Reuse content