A long season is three days from completion, but there was no sign of Steven Gerrard counting down the hours yesterday. Having missed last summer's World Cup through injury, and having been invalided out of Euro 2000, the Liverpool midfielder is simply pleased to be ready to play the final match, England's European Championship qualifier with Slovakia at the Riverside Stadium on Wednesday.
Although he suffered a dip in form over the winter, and missed England's February friendly against Australia through injury, Gerrard has been so plagued by fitness problems in the past that this, he said, "has probably been my best season in terms of games played." The 23-year-old added: "I've played about 60-odd games and I'm still feeling fresh."
The England head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, commented on Gerrard's improved demeanour this week and the player said: "I always said I'd be happier when I could train every day and play repeat games. My form's good, I'm enjoying training and the games are going quite well so you'll see smiles all the time."
Gerrard's contentment has had an added benefit for England as it has allowed him to find time to help Wayne Rooney settle into the squad. The Liverpudlian pair are regularly seen together and Gerrard said: "When you are away for several days at one of these get-togethers it is a bit like a five-star jail. You have to get out of your room, play a bit of table-tennis and pool, otherwise you get lonely in there and you don't need that before a big game. I just talk to Wayne, spend time with him, give him a knock and get him out of his hotel room. We have to make sure he feels good and then we'll get the best out of him on the pitch.
"We're from a similar background and live near each other. Maybe that's why we get on well. He's socialising more now. The other lads know and respect him. The age gap is not a problem. He may be 17 but he's mature for his age. He acts like a man as well as looks like a man.
"Michael [Owen] did the same for me. He's not much older than me but he's a lot more experienced. He helped me and that's why I'm trying to help Wayne. When you come into a big squad and you don't know anybody it's difficult. You can't just knock on someone's door if you don't know them. It's down to people in your club, or who you know, to help you.
"He's been good for us as well. When someone of his ability comes into the squad it gives everyone a lift and I think that was why we played so well against Turkey."
Rooney is likely to partner Owen on Wednesday when the latter will win his 50th cap. Emile Heskey will either drop into midfield in place of Frank Lampard or be demoted to the bench. The other possible change is at left-back, where Ashley Cole is being challenged by Wayne Bridge.
While Gerrard said he welcomed the diamond midfield system as it enabled him, when playing wide, to be more involved, Cole yesterday admitted he found it a struggle, the extra demands exacerbating the problems he has had returning from injury.
"The diamond means I can't attack as much because there is no one in midfield to come back so it's been hard playing that," he said. "It's hard physically to get up and down after the injury. I still get some scar tissue which aggravates me a bit. I have to get up to support the midfield but also defend but I'm a bit rusty. I hope I have one more game in me then I can rest."
Cole was poor against Serbia and Montenegro last Tuesday and was withdrawn at the break. Unlike with the other four players taken off, Eriksson did not say it was to protect him from injury. The Arsenal defender, who initially took well to international football, admitted it was not his only disappointing performance. "It's been hard for me to play for England," he said. "I've been criticised a lot and some of it is due."
Cole, like the rest of the 23-man squad, trained yesterday at Middlesbrough's Rockliffe Park complex. Matthew Upson, who suffered a dead leg against Serbia and Montenegro, confirmed his fitness by taking part in a second session in less than 24 hours.
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