After calling up 44 players this season and using 38 of them - seven as captains - England's head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, is tempted to select an unchanged starting line-up for Wednesday's critical European Championship qualifying game against Slovakia at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium.
The decision exercising the manager and dividing Merseyside most is whether to play Liverpool's Emile Heskey - the teacher's pet of the squad - ahead of Everton's Wayne Rooney. In similar circumstances, for the even more important tie at home to Turkey in March, Eriksson went with the precocious Rooney as Michael Owen's partner and was rewarded with an excellent performance from the teenager in England's 2-0 success. Given the chance to play them together again in last Tuesday's friendly against Serbia and Montenegro, however, the Swede did not use Rooney until the second half, by which time Owen had been taken off as planned. That means their total playing time as a partnership comprises 57 minutes against Turkey (for most of which the Liverpool man was suffering from a blow to the back) and 10 minutes away to Liechtenstein.
All Eriksson would say on the matter at England's base near Darlington yesterday was: "They haven't played together much. But we have four practices before Wednesday, and if they were to play [against Slovakia] they can play in the practice sessions." Asked to compare the two contenders, he added: "They have different qualities. Rooney can play on his own but is very good at dropping a little deeper. Heskey, he's strong and a better header."
Whatever stage Rooney appears, he will be reminded of the need to keep his temper in check, despite any provocation: "I always talk about that, especially before qualifying games," said Eriksson. "It's very important we keep 11 players on the pitch for 90 minutes."
An unchanged team, for the first time since the World Cup finals last summer, would leave Joe Cole and Owen Hargreaves as disappointed as Rooney. Both did well as substitutes at Leicester, but now find different factors conspiring against them. Cole, making up for lost time in his half-hour on Tuesday, should have been tried at the World Cup and given an extended run afterwards, but has not convinced Eriksson, who only summoned him this time as a replacement for Kieron Dyer; Hargreaves wants a chance to play the holding role, but found Manchester United's Phil Neville given that place last week and likely to keep it.
Neville impressed the head coach ("He played brilliantly, very intelligent") and believes he has done enough to continue laying anchor: "I played a lot of games in midfield for United in the Champions' League, and with this manager, it stands you in good stead. I've played in defence for the majority of my career, so I've got a defensive mind, which helps when you play in a diamond formation."
Eriksson is not concerned that Paul Scholes, who scored in three successive games for his country at the end of the manager's first season, has not registered since - in 21 games. Brian Clough, working as a radio summariser at Leicester (and looking reassuringly healthy), was among those who felt Scholes was much too deep and needs to be in closer contact with the two strikers. "Sometimes he wants the ball and has to come deeper," Eriksson said. "When he gets the ball, things happen. I didn't know he had not scored for two years. But it's absolutely not a problem. I don't know how many assists he has or goals he has been involved in, but I guess a lot." Steven Gerrard, the talisman who has never lost in 17 England appearances, will be nominally on the right in place of the suspended (and injured) David Beckham, and Frank Lampard will probably hold off the challenge from his former club-mate Cole.
With five defenders and five midfielders still unavailable, other options are limited. The rearguard therefore seems certain to be the same as on Tuesday, with David James in goal, behind Danny Mills, Gareth Southgate, Matthew Upson and Ashley Cole.
Owen will keep the captain's armband in Beckham's absence, though his strengths as a leader are unclear. Most supporters would rather see the exciting Rooney alongside him than Heskey, despite the latter's extra couple of inches. An attacking alternative would be to drop Heskey back into midfield at Lampard's expense, but if that is the intention it should have been tried at Leicester.
In the meantime, England supporters will have to get used to Eriksson's unpopular notion of friendly matches, at least until Fifa, the world governing body, impose a maximum number of substitutes, as their president, Sepp Blatter, is threatening. As no new rule can be implemented until the International Board meeting next February, there is likely to be a procession of players similar to Tuesday's at the opening international of next season, expected to be against Croatia at Ipswich on 20 August.
Until last week, it had been assumed that Eriksson's attitude to these matches was unique, but his opposite number, Dejan Savicevic, trumped his 10 replacements with 11 of his own.
Although the Leicester crowd responded well to last week's pleas for improved behaviour - throwing paper aeroplanes does not yet constitute grounds for a Uefa ban - the Football Association are taking no chances on England's return to the North-east for a match they once feared would have to be played behind closed doors. When the teams met in Slovakia eight months ago, Heskey and Cole suffered heavy racial abuse during England's 2-1 win and there was fighting in the crowd.
Although fewer than 200 visiting supporters will be present at the Riverside, front-row seats will be filled by stewards and security staff, who need to be more alert than their counterparts were on the occasion of the pitch invasions against Turkey at Sunderland.Reuse content