Eriksson urges supporters to avert 'catastrophe'

International Friendly: Warnings over fans' behaviour add to England manager's concerns over players' fitness for Serbia game tomorrow
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The Independent Football

Many a time the address of England's latest country retreat, Gallows Lane, would have seemed appropriate, but yesterday no one was being hung out to dry, least of all Rio Ferdinand.

The Manchester United defender was implicated, along with John Terry, in an alleged "3am brawl" in La Manga during England's "bonding break" with their families last week. The claim, made in a Sunday tabloid, was vigorously refuted by the Football Association yesterday but they admitted there was "a minor misunderstanding" which was quickly resolved.

Whatever the truth, and a certain amount of embellishment can be assumed, the merest hint of England players being involved in such an incident in the early hours is untimely. Tomorrow's friendly against Serbia and Montenegro will be preceded by a televised address to the nation from David Beckham. The England captain will ask supporters to behave during the following week's qualifying tie against Slovakia for fear of England being expelled from Euro 2004.

Sven Goran Eriksson backed up this message yesterday when he said: "The next time something happens we are out of Europe and that would be catastrophic."

Eriksson, who said he had cautioned the players about their goal celebrations, which Uefa, the game's governing body in Europe, felt exacerbated the recent trouble against Turkey, added: "It is very important we behave on the pitch and out supporters behave. It would be incredible if we could not go on playing in Europe."

Of the players' off-field behaviour Eriksson blithely insisted he had no concern. "Everybody was very happy in La Manga," he said. "I talked to the players and the hotel management. There were no problems at all. I think they behaved very well."

Ferdinand, speaking at the Monaco Grand Prix which he attended after being released from the England squad to receive treatment on his knee, said the incident had "been blown out of all proportion" and "over-fabricated".

Of greater concern for Eriksson was how he covers Ferdinand's absence at Leicester tomorrow and at Middlesbrough next week. He is the fourth central defender to be ruled out this summer and Eriksson might have been tempted to check out the car boot sale a mile away from England's base to see if any centre-halves were going cheap.

Instead, amid the wheatfields of rural Leicestershire, Matthew Upson was handed a green bib and given the chance to develop the fledgling partnership with Gareth Southgate embarked upon in South Africa last month.

"There are a lot of defenders out," said Eriksson, a life-size portrait of Sol Campbell at his left shoulder emphasising the point. "Upson has had a good season and he deserves to come in. He worked very well in La Manga."

Another contender, John Terry, may also get a run tomorrow as he appears to have recovered from the thigh strain which curtailed the end of his club season. The other injured player, Wayne Rooney, is likely to test his wounded knee in the second period allowing Emile Heskey to start in his hometown. Heskey may then move to the left flank.

In midfield, Eriksson's problem is how to compensate for the loss of David Beckham through suspension and Trevor Sinclair with a dead leg. Sinclair appears likely to be replaced by Frank Lampard who impressed in Durban. On the right Eriksson will either deploy Jermaine Jenas or Steven Gerrard.

The latter option will involve Owen Hargreaves filling in as a holding midfielder. Along with Sinclair, who may yet be fit for Slovakia, Hargreaves sat out training yesterday, resting after his afternoon arrival from Germany where he helped Bayern Munich win the German Cup at the weekend.

Eriksson said he was confident Hargreaves would be fit, because, as at the World Cup when he came top of all the tests, he would have benefited from the winter break in Germany. Though Hargreaves later disputed this theory, Eriksson went on to link it to the failure of English clubs in Europe.

"Only one English team has been in the European Cup final in 18 years and if we do not stop and think it could be another 18 years before we have a second," he said. "I am sure the only reason we don't have a team in the final every other year is we play too much football because no one can convince me Juventus and Milan are better teams than Arsenal and Manchester United."

Only La Liga clubs play as many games as Premiership ones and, noted Eriksson, the Spanish have a winter break, spread their season out longer and have only one domestic cup competition.

He added: "In Italy they have one injured player for this week's match [against Northern Ireland], Christian Vieri. Everyone else is fit. There must be a reason for this difference. Our absent players had all been playing with injuries. I am sure we are the only country in Europe playing Saturday and Monday as we do Christmas, New Year and Easter. The risks of injury are much higher."

It is a familiar lament but unless there is an improbable change in the game's economics, Eriksson's appeal will continue to remain unheeded.

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