David Beckham will make a swift return to the Old Trafford pitch tonight after promising Sven Goran Eriksson he will not be booked against Liechtenstein. A yellow card in this evening's Euro 2004 qualifier would mean England's captain would miss the crucial group decider in Turkey next month. Beckham, who swapped Manchester for Madrid in the summer, insists it will not happen.
Asked by a journalist if he could guarantee that he would behave in exemplary fashion and not react if an opponent kicked him, riled him or even pulled his famous ponytail, Beckham replied with an emphatic "Yes". He had evidently already been asked a similar question by Eriksson, given the same answer and been told that he would be playing.
Although the England coach refused to confirm as much "I prefer not to answer that question" Beckham had the confident air of a man who knows he will be involved. "Obviously there is a certain amount of risk but I want to play," Beckham said. "It will be nice to play at Old Trafford so soon after moving."
A fourth booking in six Euro 2004 appearances would mean Beckham missing the Turkey game in Istanbul on 11 October as a result of his second ban of the competition. Beckham's fellow midfielder, Steven Gerrard, and Sol Campbell, the central defender, are facing the same scenario as England look for a record eighth consecutive win.
At one stage in yesterday's pre-match press conference Beckham said: "The final decision is up to the manager. If he decides I'm not playing I'll accept it." But he had effectively already confirmed he will appear by saying: "It's my decision to play, and the manager is happy with that."
Eriksson denied that sentiment would swing his decision about whether to allow Beckham an emotional return to the stadium where he made his name. "I don't think about Old Trafford," Erikkson said. "It's his old home ground and I can understand [he wants to play] but for me, as manager, all I care about is I want to win."
The Swede admitted he has considered omitting Beckham, Gerrard and Campbell. "Of course I thought about that but we will see. I have to be careful but they have to be more careful on the pitch. Sometimes in football you take stupid cards, talking to the ref, kicking the ball away or making a bad tackle."
Yet he also made a case for their inclusion. Having agreed, "for sure", that he would look stupid if he played the trio and one of them got booked, he later said: "If I don't pick [them] and we don't win, then you [the media] will cut off my head."
Not until this evening will we know his final decision but on balance it seems Beckham will start, Gerrard will probably start (if not play the whole game) and Campbell theoretically at greater risk of a booking as a defender is the likeliest of the trio to be rested.
If England's training sessions this week are any indicator of the team, Campbell will make way for Matthew Upson, who will partner John Terry in central defence as he did in practice on Monday. Wayne Bridge will replace Ashley Cole at left-back, with Gary Neville in the right-back position.
With Beckham on the right wing and Gerrard alongside him, the other two places in a four-man midfield look likely to be filled by Frank Lampard and either Owen Hargreaves or Kieron Dyer. Dyer played in the training game on Monday but Hargreaves' greater ability and willingness to track back and win the ball could be invaluable. Leaking early goals to inferior opponents has been a worrying trend for England in recent months, and solidity will be as important as a hatful of goals.
With that in mind, it would seem unnecessarily adventurous for Eriksson to start with three strikers, with Wayne Rooney playing "in the hole" behind Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, as happened in the second half against Macedonia on Saturday. Eriksson said yesterday that he has considered that option but would not share his conclusions. Doing so would be risky, presumably.