Eriksson searches for happy ending

Road to 2004: Tuesday's task is to find blend to replace Beckham and a host of defenders and close season on a high

Just as Welsh rugby followers consoled themselves after a shattering defeat by Western Samoa with "good job we weren't playing the whole of Samoa", so Englandfootball supporters might find it a bit much, at the fag-end of an exhausting season, to be thrown up against both Serbia and Montenegro in Tuesday's friendly at Leicester.

This is not, however, an imitation of Sven Goran Eriksson's much-derided plan to field two different teams in one match; and with Croatia and Macedonia both on England's fixture list at the start of next season, the convoluted geography, history and politics of the Balkans may eventually become a little more familiar.

Tuesday's task is easier to grasp: find the side most likely to round off the season on a high by defeating Slovakia at Middlesbrough eight days later. Eriksson has been encouraged by the recent 2-1 victory over South Africa and then a useful combination of rest with families and training with team-mates in La Manga. After returning home on Thursday, the players will be golfing partners reunited in Leicestershire this morning, with "only" Rio Ferdinand missing.

The only loss, but a significant one nevertheless, all the more so because of the absence of other central defenders in Sol Campbell, Jonathan Woodgate and Wes Brown. Gareth Southgate now gains new stature as much the most senior figure in defence (and would be a better captain than Michael Owen, who was given the armband when David Beckham left the pitch in Durban); Matthew Upson will be vying with John Terry for the role alongside him. Upson can be regarded as having a head start, not only by being selected in preference to the Chelsea man (surprisingly) in the Australia squad but by making his debut before Terry against South Africa when the latter was injured. It would be sensible to give both a run as Southgate's partner at some stage on Tuesday. Ashley Cole, available again after the FA Cup final, and Danny Mills can expect to be the full-backs at both Leicester and Middlesbrough.

Phil Neville missed an opportunity to impress in Durban, suffering a torrid evening at left-back, but it was significant that Eriksson switched him later to the midfield holding role and has named him as a strong candidate to play there. Owen Hargreaves and Steven Gerrard are contenders, but Hargreaves has been away for some time, having been involved in the German Cup final last night.

The question with Gerrard is whether he would be more effective in that role or wide on the right, in Beckham's position. Jermaine Jenas could have made Beckham's place his own with a dominant performance in South Africa, but he did not do so, and with Trevor Sinclair even less effective on the other flank, the midfielder who advanced his claims furthest in half an hour as a substitute was Chelsea's Frank Lampard. He deserves a start, even if it has to be on the left of the midfield diamond.

The retrograde step would be to drop Emile Heskey back into that blighted position, now that Wayne Rooney has Everton's blessing (thank you kindly, Mr Moyes) to appear for his country again. The young prodigy should, of course, do so, with Darius Vassell, James Beattie and Heskey on the bench. It will be interesting, incidentally, to see how quickly Beattie and Wayne Bridge are forgiven for playing in a testimonial match at Aberdeen when they were supposed to be recuperating after the Cup Final. Both would in fact have been better served by travelling to South Africa, where Bridge, unconvincing in his last couple of internationals as well as in Cardiff, would have been first choice at left-back and Beattie would have been worth a run instead of falling further behind the lively Vassell in the pecking order.

What of the opposition? Ron Greenwood used to describe Yugoslavia as the Brazilians of Europe, yet for all their sumptuous individual talent, they regularly underachieved. Little has changed, even after losing great swathes of players toCroatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Slovenia. Beaten only once in qualifying matches for the World Cup, they still finished behind Russia and Slovenia; starting the current European Championship campaign as Yugoslavia, they drew away to Italy and beat Finland before changing names and managing nothing better than a draw at home to Azerbaijan.

Wales, the group leaders, meet them in August and October, but before that there are two more qualifying matches, on Saturday and next Wednesday. So their coach, Dejan Savicevic, the former Milan midfielder, is also considering his options. He has rested PSV Eindhoven's Mateja Kezman, whose 35 goals make him the highest scorer in Europe this season, and has three other strikers familiar to British fans playing for a place: Savo Milosevic, a failure with Aston Villa but a success at Real Zaragoza; Predrag Mijatovic, 34, who won the 1998 Champions' League final for Real Madrid; and the former Sheffield Wednesday bludgeon Darko Kovacevic, now with Real Sociedad.

"I will give a chance to most of the players against England so I can see who to pick for the European Championship qualifiers," said Savicevic. Eriksson, we must hope, is closer than that to discovering his best XI.

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