The Liverpool midfielder, who enjoyed one of his most effective England performances of late against Austria, suffered a shin injury during the 1-0 victory at Old Trafford and could be out for up to three weeks. That would mean he misses not only the final qualification game in Group Six but club fixtures against Blackburn and Fulham plus the Champions' League trip to Anderlecht.
With David Beckham suspended as a result of his harsh dismissal on Saturday, over which the Football Association has no right of appeal, Sol Campbell hamstrung, Ashley Cole nursing a fractured foot and Gary Neville recovering from surgery on his groin Eriksson's options are severely limited for a contest now free of the pressure to qualify for the World Cup. Instead it represents the final competitive test of his conviction that England have the capacity to win the World Cup next year`.
Eriksson maintained his record of qualifying for every tournament as England manager courtesy of Netherlands' defeat of the Czech Republic and, though his team once again failed to deliver on his pre-match promise of enterprise and entertainment against Austria, he yesterday insisted the nation should consider itself among the favourites for Germany 2006.
"I think we have to play better but we will play better in the World Cup," he admitted. "But my feeling is very strongly that we have an extremely good team, and we are one of four or five nations that can win it. I am excited because the big aim for us for two years has been to qualify for the World Cup... after the Northern Ireland game the critics began saying maybe not. So of course I am delighted."
England will win Group Six with victory over the current leaders on Wednesday, when Wayne Rooney will return from suspension, Rio Ferdinand will replace the unfortunate Campbell, Michael Owen will assume the captaincy from Beckham and Shaun Wright-Phillips, possibly, the Real Madrid man's right midfield place. Those reinforcements illustrate Eriksson's resources, and he insisted there are genuine reasons to share his optimism.
"We have in our team, when all are available, at least 10 world-class players. They are top, top," he declared. "We have 10 who could be among the 50 best in the world. We have 13 or 14 who have been, or are, the captains with their club teams. It's up to them to show leadership." He added: "I know we can play better football but after Denmark, after Wales, after Northern Ireland this has nothing to do with the other three games, nothing at all. This was a step in the right direction, absolutely. We wanted to go on keeping the shape which we haven't done in the last three games. I think they did it very well and worked together as a unit which we haven't done especially well this season."
Eriksson absolved Beckham of blame for the second sending-off of his England career, one that, although controversial, revealed the captain's petulant streak when he fouled Andreas Ibertsberger within a minute of his first yellow card. Ibertsberger also defended Beckham. "The first one was just a normal foul but not a booking, no way, and the second time he did catch my foot but I'm not sure that was a booking either," he said.
Though the England captain led the squad celebrations at their Manchester hotel when qualification was confirmed on Saturday night he was left to reflect on a troubled week. Beckham, who had spent most of last week with his sick son, Romeo, said: "There is a bit of history between me and the referee [Luis Medina Cantalejo, who sent off Beckham in a Spanish Cup game against Valencia in January] and I thought he [Ibertsberger] made a deal of both situations, but that's football. ."
England's red card roll call
England players have been sent off 10 times, but David Beckham became the first to be shown a red card twicewhen he was dismissed against Austria.
* 1968: Alan Mullery England 0 Yugoslavia 1 (Euro Championship finals)
* 1973: Alan Ball Poland 2 England 0 (World Cup qualifier)
* 1977: Trevor Cherry Argentina 1 England 1 (friendly)
* 1986: Ray Wilkins England 0 Mexico 0 (World Cup finals)
* 1998: David Beckham England 2 Argentina 2 (WC finals)
* 1998: Paul Ince Sweden 2 England 1 (EC qualifier)
* 1999: Paul Scholes England 0 Sweden 0 (EC qualifier) * 1999: David Batty Poland 0 England 0 (EC qualifier)
* 2002: Alan Smith England 2 Macedonia 2 (EC qualifier)
* 2005: David Beckham
England 1 Austria 0 (WC qualifier)
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