Eriksson says a prayer for health of his Special Ones

The time for experimentation is over but England coach admits he may have to take a risk with Owen and choose five strikers as insurance for injuries
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The Independent Football

Suddenly, time is tight for England and their head coach, and lingering problems are causing even the most relaxed brow to furrow. Whether or not Fifa agree to extend the deadline for the naming of World Cup squads by as much as a fortnight, the die will have to be cast before Sven Goran Eriksson's final two warm-up matches, at Old Trafford against Hungary on 30 May and Jamaica on 2 June.

Where Alf Ramsey had eight internationals in the first half of 1966 before setting out to win the World Cup (and, contrary to received wisdom, was still tinkering with tactics and personnel well into the tournament), Eriksson has been granted three. While it is therefore just as well that his preferred team has been known for so long, last Wednesday's fixture with Uruguay marked the end of any experimentation as well as offering an uncomfortable reminder that not a single one of the chosen XI he put forward last November can be guaranteed fitness.

Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard - hitherto considered to be indestructible - and Michael Owen ("our best goalscorer") were all missing at Anfield. Of the contenders to make up the numbers, Chris Kirkland, Sol Campbell, Jonathan Woodgate, Owen Hargreaves, Kieron Dyer and Alan Smith also had a cross against their name in the register, and Wayne Bridge's injury added a further complication, even though it has not proved as serious as was first thought.

Eriksson's inclination, as we have seen at previous tournaments, is to give his stellar players as much time as possible to get fit and err on the side of optimism by taking them anyway. What sort of a deadline does he have in mind for borderline cases this time?

"You can't say in general. Normally a [physically] small player gets in form more quickly than the big guys, who need more time. I have to look from case to case."

And if someone such as Owen was still not playing by the end of the Premiership season on 7 May? "It would be very difficult. Probably if the doctors are telling me Michael Owen would be ready for the friendly games, I would probably take five strikers and take a risk, because Michael Owen is our best goalscorer, and is still only 26 years old, so I can't see any reason why he can't score. Of course, it is a worrying time and every game they play the only thing I'm afraid of is that they get injured. But I can't do anything about it."

The option of taking an extra striker is the glimmer of hope for Charlton's Darren Bent, who had little opportunity to transfer his club form to the international stage, but missed the one shot and header he was offered. Like Geoff Hurst, who was introduced by Ramsey at the same late stage of the campaign in 1966, he is a target man who makes good runs, can hold the ball up and is useful in the air.

Where Hurst might have been darting to the near post on Wednesday, however, Bent was a fraction late, and with Uruguay sitting so deep there was none of the space that he exploits by sprinting on to his clubmates' passes over the top of the defence; when England eventually tried to find him, the ball tended to finish up in the arms of the goalkeeper or a ball-boy.

A more forceful young man might have claimed that he should have been given an oppor-tunity in one of five previous squad appearances. But - in contrast to the Ramsey era - four of those were critical qualifying ties, and in the other he was a late call-up for the first time. He would also have been watched in at least a dozen training sessions and almost as many Charlton matches this season.

If there is a clean bill of health for strikers come the middle of May, the order of preference now appears clear. Owen and Wayne Rooney are first choice, and Peter Crouch the very different option as a substitute, unfamiliar to Continental defenders (Argentina are the only potential World Cup opposition against whom he has ever played - for nine minutes).

Jermain Defoe, though not a team player in any sense, remains a sharp little poacher who after an unexpected drought since Christmas has returned with three goals in as many games and must feel he has eased Bent out of fourth place.

"If I pick the squad today, I know 18, 19, 20, even 21 maybe," Eriksson said. The three goalkeepers are obvious: "Paul Robinson is doing very well and David James I suppose is a must because if something happened to Robinson, then you would [otherwise] have two goalkeepers who had never played in big games."

With Kirkland never fit, and the experienced Nigel Martyn not prepared to go as a No 3 (and injured at the moment anyway), Norwich's Robert Green has won a ticket almost by default.

It is conceivable that Bent might not be the only disappointed Charlton player, for as deputy to Gary Neville at right-back, Jamie Carragher would be less vulnerable against top-class attacking than Luke Young. Sol Campbell, Ledley King and Bridge would then be the other understudies for the back-line, Carragher and King having the benefit of offering versatility. Full-backs Glen Johnson and Paul Konchesky have to believe their chance has gone.

In midfield, Michael Carrick has had a good season at the right time, his passing ability making up for any lack of assertiveness in the tackle, and Shaun Wright-Phillips has made up ground recently that he appeared to be losing because of such sporadic appearances for his club.

That would leave two remain-ing midfield places between Jermaine Jenas and Kieran Richardson, both of whom were in last week's squad, and the injury-prone pair Dyer and Hargreaves, who were not. Stewart Downing, who has been confined to the Under-21s recently, and Phil Neville, dropped this time, should also make provisional holiday bookings for June. And if Eriksson stuck by Young, who did not disgrace himself in five successive appearances for England last autumn, there would be only one place between those six candidates.

But previous experience suggests that drawing up a definitive list at this stage is futile. Lucky would be the coach having his 23 best players fit and in form at the start of June; most would settle for a guarantee of their half-dozen key men.

Eriksson is due some anxious moments in the next eight weeks, and it should not be a surprise if television cameras catch him looking away as John Terry, Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney or Owen go into a challenge.