Even Sven Goran Eriksson, who has become known as the ice-man for his cool response to both triumph and disaster, must have felt his blood run cold. It was 69 minutes into Manchester United's draw at Villa Park yesterday afternoon when David Beckham, England's captain and inspiration, pulled up lame.
Beckham, clutching his groin, looked distraught and on the brink of tears; Eriksson was like a man trying very hard not to betray his emotions.
Then the news came through. Beckham, according to his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson, should be fit to play against Germany in Munich on Saturday evening and Albania in Newcastle next Wednesday. He will need treatment but, said Ferguson, "there should be no problems".
The relieved England coach was thus able, a couple of hours later, to name a near full-strength squad for the crucial World Cup qualifiers. Only long-term absentees Kieron Dyer and David James, recent injury-victims Alan Smith, Nicky Butt and Martin Keown, and fellow fringe candidates Ugo Ehiogu and Chris Powell, are missing. Despite Smith's absence Eriksson has resisted suggestions he recall Teddy Sheringham. Kevin Phillips, a scorer in yesterday's Tyne-Wear derby, has also been omitted. Danny Murphy, of Liverpool, has been recalled and Bayern Munich's Owen Hargreaves retained for a match on his home ground.
"I feel this is a very strong strong squad for two very difficult games," said Eriksson. "While everyone knows how important this match is for England, the Germans will also be under pressure." They will be without Mehmet Scholl who has inflamed tendons in his left ankle. "It is a great loss," said Rudi Völler, the German manager. "Scholl can decide games."
Völler's team, however, need only a draw. England, to maintain hope of qualifying automatically for next summer's World Cup, must become the first England team to win in Germany since 1965 and the first from any country to defeat Germany in a "live" qualifier their one defeat in 61 previous ties, to Portugal 16 years ago, was in a "dead" match.
Win and England will have their destiny in their own hands. Should they then defeat Albania, and Greece at Old Trafford on 6 October, they will at least finish level on points with the Germans and probably head them on goal difference. Draw and Germany will only need a point at home to Finland on 6 October regardless of England's other results. Lose and Germany will become the 10th qualified team (joining hosts Japan and South Korea, holders France, Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia, South Africa and Argentina). England would be left looking over their shoulder at Greece and Finland as they pursued a play-off spot.
Eriksson chose the party after a typically busy weekend. He took in the games between Bayern Munich and Liverpool in Monaco on Friday, West Ham United and Leeds United on Saturday, and Aston Villa and Manchester United yesterday.
He will watch Liverpool again tonight, at Bolton Wanderers. That will be a nervous 90 minutes, for Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard are central to his plans and five other Liverpool players are in his squad.
ENGLAND SQUAD (for World Cup qualifiers against Germany and Albania): Seaman (Arsenal), Martyn (Leeds), Wright (Arsenal), G Neville (Man Utd), Ashley Cole (Arsenal), Ferdinand (Leeds), Campbell (Arsenal), Brown (Man Utd), Southgate (Middlesbrough), Carragher (Liverpool), P Neville (Man Utd), Mills (Leeds), Beckham (Man Utd), Scholes (Man Utd), Gerrard (Liverpool), Barmby (Liverpool), Hargreaves (Bayern Munich), Carrick (West Ham), McManaman (Real Madrid), Lampard (Chelsea), Murphy (Liverpool), Owen (Liverpool), Fowler (Liverpool), Heskey (Liverpool), Andy Cole (Man Utd).Reuse content