The injury clouds continue to gather for Sven Goran Eriksson around an already thin-looking squad with Rio Ferdinand ruled out with a kidney complaint and serious doubts over whether David Beckham will be fully fit to lead England in Macedonia.
Having picked up a groin strain playing for Real Madrid on Wednesday night, Beckham underwent a fitness test and medical yesterday after a tortuous journey to Manchester United's headqurters at Carrington from the Spanish capital. The medical detected no tear in the muscle. An FA statement last night said he would be reassessed this morning but that doctors were "quietly confident" Beckham would play. The definite absence of Ferdinand, however, means England can be less confident of achieving a victory they desperately require.
With two other members of what Kieron Dyer called "the famous four" in midfield Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard already out of action and the third, Nicky Butt, barely match fit, England could not afford to lose their captain. The two others likely to begin in midfield on Saturday, Owen Hargreaves and Frank Lampard, can boast 10 international starts between them and, for the former, many of those have been at right back.
The loss of Ferdinand is a heavy enough price to pay for an already stretched squad. Once more, the combination of Sol Campbell and Ferdinand, which proved so effective during the World Cup, will be unavailable for a European Championship qualifier. Since defeat by Brazil in Shizuoka, they have played together only once competitively and it may not be a coincidence that it was in England's most convincing display in the group, the 2-0 defeat of Turkey at Sunderland.
Eriksson has employed a different defensive partnership in each of the previous five qualifiers and the England head coach will have to use a sixth in Skopje, probably giving John Terry his third cap alongside Campbell but he could use Matthew Upson, who was called into the squad as cover for Ferdinand. It should be said that Terry did not impress in the friendly victory over Croatia and for a game strewn with potential pitfalls, much rests on the broad shoulders of Campbell, whose attitude to the England set-up has since the World Cup become detached and resentful. Under the circumstances, the omission of Gareth Southgate, who has the benefit of both experience and having played in three European Championship qualifiers, appears hard to defend.
As the player himself anticipated, Dyer has made a rapid recovery from the hamstring injury which hampered him against Birmingham on Saturday. He spent 20 minutes warming up with the England physio, Gary Lewin, before taking part in a full training session. However, although Dyer has at times run himself ragged attempting to kick-start Newcastle's season, it was unlikely he would have featured in Eriksson's starting line-up.
With the choice of strike partner to Michael Owen likely to fall between Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney, James Beattie is not likely to start either, but he cannot be discounted from playing some kind of role. Eriksson may gamble with Rooney but will he get the one who illuminated the Stadium of Light or the lost boy who appeared at the Riverside Stadium against Slovakia? Beattie at least retains his natural buoyancy.
He said: "I've scored goals whenever I've been fit. I've threatened to do what I did last year for a number of seasons but I kept getting injuries that kept me out for three or four months. I'm a confident person, I have a lot of self belief and the biggest bonus for me was to get a full season. I knew the goals would come if I was fit." Unhappily for Eriksson, remaining fit has been beyond too many of his players.
* Manchester United negotiated a new agreement with Real Madrid to receive £11m of the transfer fee for David Beckham in a lump sum and were due to receive that yesterday. United were originally going to receive a £12m payment in equal instalments over four years; under the new terms United will receive £1m less but can bank the money immediately. The club had already received £5m of the £25m fee with the rest being subject to Real's performances in the Champions' League.
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