Captain Beckham: 'England always need men like Butt'

Talisman returns with Real benefits of better touch and quicker feet
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Mention Japan in the context of English football and the mind goes back not so much to the only previous fixture between the countries (a 2-1 win for Terry Venables' team at Wembleyin June 1995) but to the heat of Shizuoka, with Sven Goran Eriksson standing impotently by as Brazil's 10 men dispatched England's 11 from the World Cup. As has been oft and rightly repeated, that was the head coach's only defeat in 19 competitive matches, and the time to put that record on the line again is a fortnight away, approaching with the speed and power of a French TGV.

The significance of Japan's visit to the City of Manchester Stadium on Tuesday is that Eriksson will take the opportunity to confront them with the same team he intends using against a rather more formidable France in Lisbon a week today.

There will, it seems, be no surprises in a side almost identical to the one fielded in England's last European Championship game, the gritty goalless draw against Turkey last October that ensured qualification. Michael Owen was injured on that occasion, his then club-mate Emile Heskey deputising; but with Owen and Wayne Rooney having survived an absurdly risky helmet-less go-kart race at the Holiday Village in Sardinia last week (in which David James actually crashed), Liverpool and Everton can expect to be reunited in attack.

A less tactically conservative coach might have pushed Paul Scholes forward to make room for Frank Lampard at Rooney's expense; a less rigidly loyal one would simply substitute Lampard for the ring-rusty Nicky Butt or even Scholes himself, who candidly admitted in Sardinia that after 25 internationals since a goal, he could hardly complain about that outcome: "I'm in the squad to score goals. Frank's had a great season and I think he deserves to be given a chance in the starting line-up. If the manager was to pick him instead of me, I couldn't argue with that."

If Scholes has been short of goals, his Manchester United team-mate Butt has been lacking games, playing second fiddle to another England squad man, Phil Neville, in the holding role at Old Trafford and managing only sevenminutes of the FA Cup final as a substitute. The experienced Neville might hope to compete with Owen Hargreaves and Butt for that position with England in this week's two friendlies (Iceland providing the opposition at the same venue on Saturday afternoon), but Eriksson's mind appears to be made up.

Significantly, David Beckham was speaking with his master's voice when, after joking "I'm a natural ball-winner!" he said of his former club-mate: "I think you always need players like Nicky Butt." Eriksson obviously feels so, the one difference between captain and coach being that Beckham, like Steven Gerrard, would like the chance to play a more central role. Like Gerrard, he is likely to be disappointed, Eriksson preferring them to occupy the wider roles in the diamond shape with which he intends to stifle the French by cramping their style in midfield.

This time two years ago, the fitness of both men was causing the Swede such angst that he was pulling people off the golf course to fly out to Japan for a game. "I feel a lot happier than two years ago," he said last week. So does Beckham, who admits to having been only 95 per cent fit for the World Cup and also stresses the importance of having Gerrard and Gary Neville, two senior players missing for that tournament, as well as a newcomer who was barely out of school at the time: "Wayne Rooney's a young player who doesn't play like a young player, more like an experienced Alan Shearer type. He doesn't care who he plays against, he'll go out and compete against the toughest defenders.

"Steven Gerrard has been one of the best players in the Premiership this season. What he's done for Liverpool has been amazing; he's taken them to that fourth spot. Gary's had a good season and even scored a couple of goals - maybe the manager will put him up front! To end the season with the FA Cup is a boost for him."

Beckham's own season was split in half, coming apart at the seams midway through. After creating a favourable impression at Real Madrid, making friends and goals - as well as scoring a couple - and fitting into a difficult dressing room not short of egos, his campaign disintegrated as dramatically as the team's with defeat in the Spanish Cup final, dismissal from the Champions' League (after he had been suspended) and a collapse in the League to an unthinkable fourth place.

As Eriksson might say (and frequently does): "First half good, second half not so good." Beckham prefers to emphasise the positive element of what should in the longer term prove a good career move: "It's been a great, great experience because even at 29 I'm looking to improve my game. I said before I joined that I wanted to learn from the experience of playing in Spain and I've definitely done that. People go on about another English player that's failed [abroad] but I don't feel I've failed. My performances, especially at the start of the season, proved I wasn't just there to sell shirts. Playing with people like Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo has made me a lot more confident, my touch and quickness of feet have become a lot better."

The only disadvantage to having Zidane on the end of his passes, volleying them into the net from 30 yards or more, is to remind him of what England will be up against at the Stadium of Light in two weeks' time. "I've learnt in the past from players like Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona and now to be in the team with Zidane is amazing. His bad game is like everyone else's man of the match game. There's not been much banter with him about the game, just respect from my side and his. We realise they've got a great squad and players who've been unbelievable this season like Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Claude Makelele. It's good to put yourself up against the best."

With due deference to Japan and Iceland, that will not be this week, but the time is coming. Having committed his immediate future to Madrid, and just as sensibly given in after threatening not to address the English media because of some of the intrusive coverage of his personal and family life, Beckham looks ready and believes: "Going into this competition people are more excited than at any other I've been involved with. Expectations are always high but if everyone stays fit, I think we're going to have a great chance."