Beckham boost as Eriksson and England face vital test of nerve

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The Independent Online

Poland like to play their toughest internationals here in the capital of Silesia. Katowice is at the centre of Poland's industrial heartland, a region dominated by the coal, steel and motor industries. Bleak high-rise apartment blocks and factory chimneys rise above the city skyline. The Stadion Slaski, the venue for tonight's World Cup qualifier against England, is reckoned to produce the most intimidating atmosphere of any Polish ground.

Poland like to play their toughest internationals here in the capital of Silesia. Katowice is at the centre of Poland's industrial heartland, a region dominated by the coal, steel and motor industries. Bleak high-rise apartment blocks and factory chimneys rise above the city skyline. The Stadion Slaski, the venue for tonight's World Cup qualifier against England, is reckoned to produce the most intimidating atmosphere of any Polish ground.

It was somehow hard to imagine yesterday. On a day of glorious warm September sunshine, the England players and coaching staff seemed at ease as they trained in the stadium for a game which some critics are billing as a key to the future of Sven Goran Eriksson. After Saturday's 2-2 draw in their first qualifying match away to Austria - a game which they led 2-0 with 20 minutes remaining - England need to avoid losing further ground against opponents who began their own campaign with a convincing 3-0 win away to Northern Ireland.

If Eriksson has much to lose, so does his captain. David Beckham, who took a full part in the training session and is set to play despite the bruised ribs he suffered against Austria, is under the most intense scrutiny of his international career after a series of below-par performances.

Both men will be aware of the fates of another England manager and captain who came here for a World Cup qualifying match 31 years ago. Two minutes into the second half, and with his side already a goal down, Bobby Moore attempted to dribble out of defence and lost possession to Wlodzimierz Lubanski, who shot past Peter Shilton. The result and manner of the 2-0 defeat shook England to the core. At Wembley four months later a 1-1 draw against the Poles ended hopes of qualifying for the 1974 World Cup. By the end of the season Sir Alf Ramsey, the manager, had been sacked and Moore had played his last game for his country.

True to past form, Eriksson dismissed any suggestion that he was starting to feel the pressure. "I'm not worried about it all," he said. "I always say that sooner or later it will happen. I've been a manager for many years and I've never been sacked, so I don't know what that experience is like. But the longer you stay in the job, the bigger the possibility is of that happening.

"But I am absolutely not thinking about it. I am not worried about it because what I am thinking about is the Poland game tomorrow, trying to win and to play good football. Maybe from outside the pressure is bigger but I don't feel that."

He added: "There are a lot of games to play still and I am quite sure we will play in the World Cup in Germany. Hopefully we will play as well tomorrow as we did in the first half and part of the second half against Austria. I don't agree with those people who are trying to panic after one game and a draw away from home."

While a debate is raging over whether Eriksson's refusal to panic also amounts to putting his players in a comfort zone where there is little pressure to succeed, it is clear that the manager will live or die by his trusted troops. If Beckham is fit to play there are unlikely to be any changes in the line-up, although Jermain Defoe must be close to earning a striking role after Alan Smith's ineffective display on Saturday.

England's greatest current problem is their failure to build on leads. Saturday's draw was the third competitive match this summer in which England scored first but did not go on to win. Eriksson denied that the team suffer from nerves when they go in front. "On Saturday it seemed too easy for them at 2-0 and they stopped doing the simple things and made the football complicated," he said. "We have to ensure that does not happen again."

Man for man, Poland should be no match for England, although the same was said of Austria last week. Historically, too, there is no reason for England to fear the Poles, despite the widespread belief that they are a bogey team.

Remarkably, the two countries have now been drawn together in World Cup or European Championship groups seven times since the qualifying campaign for the 1974 World Cup. Yet since that Wembley night in 1973 when Jan Tomaszewski, the goalkeeper, made clowns of those who had mocked him, England have won every subsequent home qualifier against the Poles and have drawn four and won one of the away games.

Moreover, England have not lost a qualifying game for the European Championship or World Cup since the 1-0 defeat at home to Germany in 2000 and they last suffered a qualifying defeat away from home six years ago. It is a record Eriksson can ill afford to spoil.

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