Eriksson set to hand Lampard holding role

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The Independent Football

To the casual observer it was a scrappy piece of polyester. To Frank Lampard, the bib he was handed late in last night's England training session at the City of Manchester Stadium was a passport to glory. If, as he hopes, it was the precursor to a starting place in tonight's friendly with Japan at the same venue, he will have followed a season of well-timed runs on the pitch with an immaculately timed one off it.

To the casual observer it was a scrappy piece of polyester. To Frank Lampard, the bib he was handed late in last night's England training session at the City of Manchester Stadium was a passport to glory. If, as he hopes, it was the precursor to a starting place in tonight's friendly with Japan at the same venue, he will have followed a season of well-timed runs on the pitch with an immaculately timed one off it.

Since the draw in Istanbul in October, which earned England a place in this month's European Championship, Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, has spent hours mulling over his team to play France in the opening game. By the time he named his squad last month he had considered and rejected every alternative to the XI which had drawn in Turkey except for the natural restoration of Michael Owen, then suspended, to the line-up.

However, Lampard's irresistible season for Chelsea has demanded he be given a chance. By contrast, Nicky Butt's invisible one for Manchester United has hardly justified his continued inclusion. But Butt gives the team balance, his roundhead discipline in the holding role allows Eriksson's midfield cavaliers to attack. To include Lampard, another cavalier, could leave the team exposed.

In the last week Eriksson has considered and reconsidered this conundrum. He is no innocent in the jungle of international football. He knows tournament success is based on being hard to beat. Look at any victorious team and you will find a holding midfielder holding the key. Dunga, Dieter Eilts, Claude Makelele and Gilberto Silva were vital figures in the various World Cup and European Championship triumphs of Brazil, Germany and France respectively in the past decade.

England already have five offensive players in the side, plus full-backs with a licence to get forward. If that is enough for France and Brazil, it should be enough for England. "It is important to have a balance," said Eriksson yesterday. "If it is not OK, all the team will suffer, the offence as well as the defence. Balance is the key."

However, form and fitness are equally important and Butt has looked off the pace in his rare recent appearances. Eriksson stressed that Butt also took time to find fitness at the World Cup yet still emerged as "a key player", but the coach has had to ask whether Butt can fulfil a brief which includes shadowing Zinedine Zidane in England's opening game.

In the attempt to find room for Lampard it has been suggested that Steven Gerrard could play in the holding role, or Paul Scholes, without an England goal for three years, should make way. Eriksson was having neither argument.

"We have a lot of good midfielders," he said, "but six of them want to play in the centre. They cannot all play there. Someone has to play on the right, someone on the left, whether it is a diamond or a normal formation. In the future Gerrard might be the best sitting midfielder, but if you are a sitting midfielder all the time you cannot go forward. I want him to be able to go forward as he is a big threat when he does." Eriksson might have added that, as yet, Gerrard does not have the discipline to "sit" all game.

Eriksson added of Scholes: "I have never thought about leaving Paul Scholes out. It may be a long while since he scored for England but he is not just a goalscorer, he makes all the team play football with his one-touch passes."

The first XI will be given almost an hour tonight to hone their teamwork before the support players are given the chance to press their credentials. Eriksson will hope to see John Terry and Sol Campbell communicating well at the back, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen dovetailing in attack, and David Beckham casting aside the cares of the past few months.

Among the players who ought to get a run when the substitutes come on is Ian Walker. He may be second reserve goalkeeper, and thus very unlikely to play in Portugal, but his last England cap was in 1996. Then he was blamed for Italy's winner at Wembley. Eight years is a long time to wait to exorcise such a ghost and it is preferable that he has the opportunity to do it in a friendly. Ledley King and Jamie Carragher, as rookie internationals, would also benefit from time on the park.

England have played Japan once before, at Wembley as part of the Umbro Cup in 1995. Gary Neville is the only survivor. He was one of four players making his full international debut: the others were John Scales, Stan Collymore and David Unsworth. England, with a sketchy performance, won 2-1. A similar result would suit Eriksson tonight, but of greater concern is how the first XI combine, and the avoidance of injury.

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