Eriksson gives Gerrard chance in leading role

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The Independent Online

Sven Goran Eriksson has admitted that it is not just those players seeking a place in Euro 2004 who are on trial in this evening's friendly international against Sweden. Tonight's match, in the Nya Ullevi stadium, where Eriksson made his name as a coach with IFK Gothenburg, is the first opportunity for the court of public opinion to deliver its verdict on Eriksson's flirtation with Chelsea.

Sven Goran Eriksson has admitted that it is not just those players seeking a place in Euro 2004 who are on trial in this evening's friendly international against Sweden. Tonight's match, in the Nya Ullevi stadium, where Eriksson made his name as a coach with IFK Gothenburg, is the first opportunity for the court of public opinion to deliver its verdict on Eriksson's flirtation with Chelsea.

"I don't know how they will react," he said last night of England's travelling support, the hard core whose loyalty is never in doubt even if their behaviour sometimes is. "It is important to have a good relationship with everyone in the game but especially the players and the fans, so I hope nothing has changed. We'll see."

Eriksson worked long enough in Italy to know that, as he put it, "the best medicine has always been winning football matches". He added: "If you don't, you will be criticised."

England's prospects of success tonight, in a match which marks the centenary of the Swedish FA, has been significantly reduced by the absence of many leading figures, with England missing seven of Eriksson's preferred first XI. Most fans understand that. Final judgement will be delayed until the summer.

What, Eriksson was asked, would be success then? He said: "Winning Euro 2004 would be a success; reaching the final is not bad; the semi-finals not a disaster. It is very difficult to say you have to win because there are so many factors. In the World Cup we lost against Brazil, who won the World Cup, so it was not so bad.

"If we do badly I will be criticised but, for the last time, I don't think as a professional football coach I did anything wrong. And it is history for me. I don't want to talk about it any more. What happens in life is the future."

It is with a nod to that thought that Eriksson has made Steven Gerrard the captain. Though Michael Owen has been an able deputy, Gerrard, 23, is the long-term heir-apparent to David Beckham, five years his elder. He has yet to finish on the losing side for England and is one of the few players with the ability to seize an international the way Beckham famously did against Greece in late 2001.

Gerrard was still immature then. His England form was inconsistent and in that match it was badly affected by the pre-match furore over an alleged drinking session. He has since developed as a player and a man and could become every bit as dominant a leader as Beckham.

"On the pitch he is a fantastic footballer," Eriksson said. "Off it he has made enormous progress since I first met him as a young boy. He is much more mature, much calmer. He deserves the captaincy."

Gerrard will also start the match in central midfield, his club position. "That is my best role, playing in the middle and being able to bomb on," the Liverpool midfielder said. "I'm not sure of the manager's plans for the summer but hopefully I'll impress him in the centre."

Gerrard's positional discipline has been criticised by Tord Grip, Eriksson's assistant, and he said: "I'm always urging to get forward and I'm sure with experience I'll be able to fit into the role."

With Patrick Vieira as his role model, Gerrard has already learned to discipline his tackling to the extent that he has not been booked this season.

"I said I was going to try and calm down," he said. "With experience I've learned to channel aggression in the right way, to be more sensible with certain challenges."

Gerrard will be partnered by Nicky Butt, the only survivor of the last English side to play in the Ullevi a decade ago. That was Manchester United, who were swept away by Gothenburg. Butt will anchor a team which will rely heavily on him, David James, John Terry and Gerrard. Together with Wayne Rooney they represent the only players likely to start England's Euro 2004 campaign less than three months hence.

With this being England's last match before the squad for that tournament is named in May, the rest of the team will be looking to cement places. The most likely starting debutant is Alan Thompson. At 30 there is no point in just bringing the Celtic midfielder here for the experience.

Sweden will include a clutch of British-based players but one of the less familiar names may catch the eye, the promising youngster Kim Kallstrom. Currently at Rennes, he is destined for a greater stage. There will be several Englishmen here hoping to prove the same.

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