Eriksson frets over a game he 'cannot win'

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The Independent Football

Few occasions have shown up the conservative nature of Sven Goran Eriksson better than his announcement yesterday that he would settle for a 1-0 victory against goalkeeper Dimitry Kramarenko and an Azerbaijan team who have become the most generous side in international football. While the nation has scented blood at St James' Park tonight, the England coach sought to patch up the wounds done to David Beckham's reputation last week.

Few occasions have shown up the conservative nature of Sven Goran Eriksson better than his announcement yesterday that he would settle for a 1-0 victory against goalkeeper Dimitry Kramarenko and an Azerbaijan team who have become the most generous side in international football. While the nation has scented blood at St James' Park tonight, the England coach sought to patch up the wounds done to David Beckham's reputation last week.

There have been many demands placed on him over his four years in England, but not many have seemed quite so disagreeable to Eriksson as attempting to beat the national team's record scoreline of 13-0 against Ireland 123 years ago. The England coach first tried to play down the weaknesses of an opposition beaten 8-0 by Poland on Saturday and, when that failed to extinguish the appetite for goals, he expounded a football philosophy in which entertainment was a by-product rather than a priority.

Eriksson admitted that his team were "super-favourites" for their World Cup qualifier, but he also acknowledged that he "could not win". A thrashing, he admitted, will only confirm that Azerbaijan are as weak as suspected, anything less will be treated as a failure - a summary which shows at the very least that Eriksson has learned something about the mentality of his adopted country.

The serious nature of a pre-training team talk in the centre-circle last night seemed to suggest Eriksson will not allow his players to be misguided by a national mood that this is a mismatch on the scale of the San Marino match in 1993. So it was a relief that one manager had abandoned the usual pre-match secrecy: the Azerbaijan coach, Carlos Alberto, did not just give out his starting line-up, he helped with the spellings.

"In one way I would be happy with 1-0, if we created 10 chances and just scored one goal, OK," Eriksson said. "It's important we play good football, important to win the game. It's important to keep distance from Poland. I will not tell the players to go out and score lots of goals. I will tell them to defend well which is always one of the most important things in international football.

"I don't think you can separate entertainment and winning. Because if you don't try to play good football you will not win many games. It's not like you can win all the time and not entertain. I think they are very close to each other. Every manager in the world tries to attack well, defend well and win football games. But I don't know any manager who tells the players before the match, 'Go out and entertain'. That's not football. To forget the result and just entertain - what's that?"

Subjecting Azerbaijan's defeat to Poland on Saturday to his own particular brand of analysis, Eriksson said the match had been an "unreal" one in which "everything went well for Poland" and the opposite for the away side. The same England team that began Saturday's victory over Northern Ireland will start tonight, although Eriksson conceded that should victory look certain he would give an opportunity to other members of the squad.

As long as his side take three points tonight, there will be little capable of stirring Eriksson's tranquillity barring another attack on the suitability of his captain, David Beckham, to continue leading the side. He confirmed yesterday that the 29-year-old would be his captain at the World Cup finals next summer and launched a defence of Beckham's credentials after Saturday's muted performance.

"I think he still is an extremely good footballer player and very important for us," Eriksson said. "I feel embarrassed always having to answer questions like 'Should be in the team? Should he be in the squad? Should he be the captain?' He's in the squad, he's in the team and he's the captain - that's it. I think we have extremely high expectations of him. He did very good work on Saturday.

"But if you look at some games, like Greece [in October 2001] he almost took the team on his shoulders. I don't think it's fair to expect that every time. To say he shouldn't be in the team or the squad. That's very hard. There is a long way to go."

The expectation on England to amass a scoreline that will enable their goal difference to compete with that of Poland, one place below them in Group Six, was also acknowledged by Wayne Rooney, who said the team had been "shocked" by the 8-0 result. And in a reminder of just how quick the 19-year-old has come to prominence in English football, he said that his first memories of World Cup football were watching Michael Owen score against Argentina in 1998.

Rooney said: "I used to watch all the games on television at my nan's house and then go outside afterwards and play football in the street. I used to pretend I was the England players. Now it's amazing to be playing with some of those same players.

"Michael is a great player and a great goalscorer. I can learn a lot from him. He likes to play on the shoulder [of the last defender] and I like to drop off so we complement each other well. We have already scored quite a few goals together and hopefully that will continue. I do feel that in a game one of us is always likely to score."

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