Eriksson uncertain whether to trust in winning formation

Click to follow
The Independent Online

After an afternoon dominated by the question of how to react to the latest furore over David Beckham, Sven Goran Eriksson sounded a relieved man yesterday as he discussed the other issue that has been dominating his thoughts.

After an afternoon dominated by the question of how to react to the latest furore over David Beckham, Sven Goran Eriksson sounded a relieved man yesterday as he discussed the other issue that has been dominating his thoughts.

Having seen his team play so well in their emphatic victory over Wales four days ago, the England coach has to decide whether to keep the same attacking formation for tonight's match here against Azerbaijan. The decision is complicated by the absence of Beckham.

Eriksson said he was certainly tempted to persist with Wayne Rooney playing "in the hole" behind Jermain Defoe and Michael Owen, who takes over the captaincy from Beckham tonight. Although he said he had yet to decide whether to revert to a conventional 4-4-2 line-up, he added: "We did very well on Saturday against Wales. We dominated the game all the time, so we might do it again."

At last night's training session England began with the same 4-3-1-2 line-up they fielded on Saturday, with Newcastle's Jermaine Jenas surprisingly starting in Beckham's place. Jenas normally plays in the centre of midfield and it had been expected that Owen Hargreaves would fill Beckham's position to give the midfield more defensive strength if the line-up was kept.

Keeping the formation from Saturday would lead to fewer changes, but with Azerbaijan set to play with five players in midfield Eriksson may well decide to revert to 4-4-2. Shaun Wright-Phillips, a natural wide player, would probably make his first start for England, though Eriksson would then have the problem of who else to play in midfield, at the expense of Defoe. Hargreaves would again be the natural choice, though Eriksson said that one option would be to move Ashley Cole into the left midfield slot and bring in Ledley King, or even Phil Neville or Jamie Carragher, at left-back.

Whatever the line-up, it is hard not to see England strengthening their position at the top of the group as there is little to suggest Azerbaijan will do anything other than justify their Fifa world ranking of No 114. Six years ago the Azeris lost 2-1 in Vaduz to give Liechtenstein the only victory in their history over another national team.

In the current campaign Azerbaijan have drawn at home to both Wales and Northern Ireland under a new coach, Carlos Alberto, who captained the immortal Brazil team that won the 1970 World Cup and scored the glorious last goal in the final against Italy. Appointed in February, 60-year-old Carlos Alberto inspired the team to a five-match unbeaten run, including the first away win in their history, over Kazakhstan.

Carlos Alberto complains about his players arriving "in appalling condition" from club football and is equally scathing about some of his opponents, notably "shit teams like Northern Ireland and Wales".

Azerbaijan have been playing international football for only 13 years, following independence from the Soviet Union. A largely Muslim nation of eight million people, wedged between Russia, Iran, Georgia, Armenia and the Caspian Sea, most of the country is technically in Asia. Football, first introduced here by British oil workers, is the national sport, but has to compete with boxing, wrestling and a passion for chess. The former world chess champion, Gary Kasparov, is from Azerbaijan.

In its short football history the country has been beset by problems. The national league was shut down for six months because of match-rigging and last year Fifa, the world governing body, suspended the country for a month because of alleged political interference.

Azerbaijan's most famous football figure was Tofikh Bakhramov, the so-called "Russian" linesman who indicated to the Swiss referee in the 1966 World Cup final that Geoff Hurst's second goal had crossed the German line. He died 11 years ago. The national stadium is named after him and one British firm has produced T-shirts for tonight's match with "Thank you" in Azerbaijani emblazoned across them.

Hurst will be present today, having attended a ceremony to unveil a statue of Bakhramov, who became a figure of hate for some Germans. Legend has it that when asked why he made the decision he gave a one-word reply - "Stalingrad".

An estimated 700,000 Azeris were recruited to the Soviet Army in the Second World War, of whom 400,000, or one-sixth of the population, died, many in the Battle of Stalingrad. A photograph of Hitler taken before his failed attempt to capture Azerbaijan's oilfields shows the Führer with a cake, given to him by his generals, representing the region. Hitler chose the slice representing Baku.

AZERBAIJAN (probable 3-5-2): Hasanzade (Neftchi Baku); Hajiyev (Turan Tovuz), Sadygov (Neftchi Baku), Amirbekov (Baki); Shukorov (Antalyaspor, Tur), Mamedov (Karabag Agdam), E Guliyev (Neftchi Baku), M Gurbanov (Neftchi Baku), K Guliyev (Karvan Yevlakh); Aliyev (Xazar-Lankaran), Nabiyev (Turan Tovuz).

Comments