Sven Goran Eriksson is reluctant to talk Turkey. England managed to overcome Liechtenstein on Wednesday, while never threatening the anticipated stuffing, to move to the top of their qualifying group for Euro 2004. Their biggest challenge since last year's World Cup quarter-final against Brazil lies ahead. A point against Turkey in Istanbul on 11 October will see them progress to Portugal. Yet Eriksson, as shackled on the subject as his captain, David Beckham, was restrained on the Old Trafford pitch on Wednesday, is not allowed to expound on the fixture.
"To be honest, I don't want to talk a lot about Turkey," he said. "For every word you say, it will be like ping pong." He meant that any comment will be analysed ad infinitum and possibly used in the verbal spat that has developed. When he said earlier this week that England fans should heed advice not to travel, it was interpreted as "Go to the game and risk death". The Turks responded by disparaging his reputation, saying he will be coaching Patagonia before he knows it. Catty, this ping pong business.
So on Wednesday the Swede limited his direct reference to the Turkey game to: "It will be hotter in Turkey and not only the weather. It will be an excellent and an interesting match."
Instead he focused on Wayne Rooney, a beacon of promise in Wednesday's theatre of mostly bad dreams. Everton's 17-year-old striker, Eriksson said, is the most promising youngster he has seen since Roberto Baggio blazed to prominence in Italy in the mid-1980s.
Baggio's breakthrough season, as a 17-year-old with Vicenza in Serie C, came in 1984-85, Eriksson's first season as the manager of Roma. Baggio stepped up to Serie A in 1985 with Fiorentina, where Eriksson took the reigns in 1987 and helped nurture the Italian into a forward who scored a goal in every other game.
"Rooney is a very confident boy who knows he is a good footballer," Eriksson said. "He's shown so far that he is not afraid [to play at international level]." A youthful lack of nerves was one attribute that made him comparable to the young Baggio. An ability to both create chances and captilise on them was another.
Eriksson has also been impressed by Rooney's versatility, not least in playing effectively "in the hole" behind two strikers. "He's very clever for his age. Normally for Everton he doesn't play in that role," he said. "He plays people in, he scores goals. It would be very difficult to leave him out if he plays like that. He should be able to achieve anything, he is one of those extraordinary talents."
Rooney would seem to be assured of a place in next month's showdown. Quite where is another matter. Playing three strikers with Rooney deep worked in the second half against Macedonia last weekend, and he was the star turn on Wednesday. But Turkey will be a different proposition in the intense atmosphere guaranteed at Fenerbahce's Sukru Saracoglu stadium.
A three-man midfield, even with Beckham and Steven Gerrard unfettered by the risk of a booking, as they were against Liechtenstein, could be shredded by Turkey's passing precision and ability to break at pace. So a reversion to four in the middle seems certain in a game where avoiding defeat is the only aim.
If Paul Scholes were available (hernia surgery permitting) he would be an automatic pick, leaving a berth for one from a probable list of Nicky Butt, Owen Hargeaves, Frank Lampard and Kieron Dyer. Possibly, if Rooney partners Owen in attack, Emile Heskey, favoured by Eriksson for so long because of his physical presence and willingness to do legwork, could also come into contention.
Eriksson has compared the importance of next month's game to the trip to Germany in World Cup qualifying, which England won 5-1. On the evidence of Wednesday's first 45 minutes, suggestions of a repeat would be talking not so much turkey as stuff and nonsense.Reuse content