Eriksson defends selection of 'fantastic' Hargreaves

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He has experienced more international tournaments than Frank Lampard, owns a proud collection of 29 England caps and is the only member of Sven Goran Eriksson's World Cup squad to win three domestic doubles in the past four seasons, but Owen Hargreaves must have suspected that he, not Theo Walcott, Aaron Lennon or Stewart Downing, was the unproven one when the media descended on the Algarve this week.

Not one of the untested trio was presented to the press at England's training camp in Portugal on Wednesday, with Eriksson anxious to keep players who have a combined total of one international cap out of the spotlight until closer to the tournament's start. Compared to the more recognisable members of the England squad, Hargreaves was similarly under-employed.

Relatively undisturbed by either the media or the general public, the 25-year-old was afforded the freedom of Vale Do Lobo, waiting politely for the few interview requests that came his way, and yet the England manager remained inclined to extend his protective shield to the experienced midfielder from Bayern Munich.

If Eriksson revealed a gambling instinct when announcing his 23-man squad at the Café Royal in London last Monday, then Hargreaves was the reminder that conservatism is an inherent part of the Swede's make-up. Efficient, though never exciting, the defensive midfielder has started only seven of his 29 games for England but has been involved in every international competition under Eriksson and, in the absence of the injured Tottenham defender/midfielder Ledley King, could find himself competing with Michael Carrick for the holding role in his country of employment.

Though Eriksson "didn't care what people thought" of the motives behind his inclusion of Walcott, Lennon and Downing, the England manager was receptive to the scepticism that surrounds his continued faith in Hargreaves but, loyal as ever, he was expansive on the reasons for his presence in the squad for the World Cup.

"I can understand the reaction in England because the fans never see him play and because of that they don't really have reason to think about him," Eriksson said. "I can assure you, however, that Owen Hargreaves deserves to be with us. I am very lucky because one of the coaches at Bayern Munich is Swedish [Bjorn Andersson] and Tord [Grip, Eriksson's assistant] more or less has daily contact with him so we know exactly how he is doing."

Eriksson added: "I've been to see him play in Germany quite a few times and he's been fantastic. I watched him play for Bayern against Stuttgart recently when all the German newspapers marked him out as the man of the match and I had to agree with them. He was fantastic. He is a better player than he was two years ago in the European Championships or four years ago at the World Cup.

"I've spoken to the directors at Bayern and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told me he has been fantastic for them for the last 12 or 13 games of the season. I know his best position is in the holding role, but he is very versatile and that's important at a World Cup."

Eriksson was not only defensive about his lower-profile players in Portugal. Captain David Beckham, though absent through Real Madrid commitments, received his customary support from above.

"David wants to have a good World Cup this time," Eriksson said. "He looks fit, he has had a fantastic season for Real Madrid, and he has the ability to be one of the world's best players."

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