Captain's injury has England on tenterhooks

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The Independent Football

David Beckham is hardly in need of any further publicity before the launch of an autobiography destined to become the biggest selling football book in publishing history, but he was the centre of attention from Manchester to Macedonia yesterday and will be again today.

Interest in the England's captain groin is verging on the prurient as he seeks to prove his fitness for tomorrow's European Championship qualifying tie. It is a match they must win to avoid the need for victory away to Turkey next month, and with three other midfielders already out and two more less than fully fit, the loss of Beckham would feel like a psychological as well as a tactical blow.

Before the players flew out to the Balkans, where sightseers were lining the airport road to catch a glimpse of them, the official word was: "David had a session in the gym with the England physio, Gary Lewin, which went well. He's expected to train with the rest of the squad today and we remain quietly confident that he'll be available for Saturday's game."

The expectation is also that Beckham will address the media early this morning, when there are some interesting questions to be asked, however optimistic he claims to be about playing. The sensation seekers will home in on whether it was mere coincidence that the private jet carrying him from Madrid to join the squad late on Tuesday night was diverted to Stansted, enabling him to spend what was left of the night at Beckingham Palace (the local Travel Lodge was presumably full).

It was doubly unfortunate that congestion on the M6 - welcome home, David - further delayed both his arrival and a first session of treatment until Wednesday evening, almost 24 hours after he sustained a groin injury playing for Real Madrid against Villareal

Does he now regret in any way insisting on playing in that game, which was hardly the best preparation for an important international?

Of his midfield partners that night, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes are hors de combat and the square peg, Wayne Bridge, can hardly be expect to be selected again for the round hole on the left. Assuming the former Manchester United icon plays, his most likely partners in the midfield quartet appear to be Nicky Butt, Owen Hargreaves and Frank Lampard.

Hargreaves has not started an international since being forced off early on in the World Cup tie against Argentina last summer, but has been playing in his favourite position for Bayern Munich and hopes now to remind Sven Goran Eriksson of his credentials. "My best position is central midfield," he said. "I don't think anybody would benefit from playing in different positions every week. When Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard are fit we have one of the best midfields in the world, no question, but it's up to me to make it difficult to be left out."

However Eriksson decides to lay out his troops, the team will have an unfamiliar look, both Gerrard and Scholes having missed only one match each in the last 10. Behind them it is expected that John Terry and Sol Campbell will be playing together in central defence for the first time, and Gary Neville, welcome though his return is, has not appeared since the 2-0 victory over Turkey in April.

Less welcome, after the events of that night at Sunderland cast their long shadow, was the dribble of England supporters arriving here yesterday in defiance of requests from Eriksson, the Football Association and the Government.

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