Eriksson's warning: keep your cool, forget about the crowd

Road to Euro 2004: England prepare for ultimate test of composure, nerve and verve in the cauldron of Istanbul
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The Independent Football

Later this month, Sven Goran Eriksson is due to address a personnel conference on the subject of "How To Get The Best Out Of Your People". If by then England have lost next Saturday's decisive European Championship group match away to Turkey and are awaiting a November play-off to decide their fate, the organisers might be tempted to summon as a substitute speaker Middlesbrough's Gareth Southgate, whose new book depicts the Swede as incapable of inspiring a team. But Eriksson's message to the "people" he selects tonight for England's most important game since the World Cup quarter-final against Brazil will be just the same as the one that failed to impress Southgate and others at half-time in Shizuoka: stay cool.

"The only need we have to be aware of is to keep the heads as cool as possible," he said at the Football Association's headquarters in London on Friday. "You don't need to speak about motivation in a game like this. The only thing is to keep the head cold. To control the nerves will be absolutely fundamental. I'm confident we'll handle the atmosphere. We'll talk about that many times, because I think it's the key to a good result. Forget about the crowd and concentrate on what you have to do. It will be a very good test, and a game for men."

That will not deter him from starting with Everton's Wayne Rooney, a scourge of Turkey in the 2-0 victory last season and still three weeks short of his 18th birthday, as long as there is sufficient evidence in training sessions this week that sitting in the dug-out for his club has not cost the man-child any sharpness.

"It would be much better for me and for England if he played regularly, but I can't do anything about that," Eriksson added. "Every time he's been with England he's done very well. I was not worried about picking him last time. Rooney or Heskey? I want to think about that next week. Maybe that's my biggest decision." But if Michael Owen does not recover from yesterday's injury, the equation will change - and James Beattie comes into it.

Before that a decision must be taken on which two or three contenders do not even make the list of about 23 names to be announced sometime after 7pm today. In the event of no further injuries occurring (Jonathan Woodgate, Danny Murphy and Southgate have already been discounted), Danny Mills and Darius Vassell may lose out to Phil Neville and Beattie, and there is unlikely to be room for both Joe Cole and Trevor Sinclair.

As to the vexed question of the so-called "England ace" whose hotel room was used for an alleged rape last weekend, Eriksson has insisted that he does not know the player's identity and that nobody will left out of his squad on the basis of gossip or internet speculation.

Keen as ever to monitor the current form of his players, the head coach was in Stuttgart for Manchester United's Champions' League defeat last week, tactfully declining to add to the widespread criticism of Rio Ferdinand: "I think that he was unlucky on the first goal and would not say that I was concerned about Rio. I hope the injury he got is not that bad." It is an extraordinary statistic that in seven qualifying matches, England have used seven different partnerships at the heart of the defence, the presumed first-choice pair of Sol Campbell and Ferdinand having appeared together only at home to Turkey. Significantly, there was a clean sheet that night, though Eriksson acknowledges that it would be unwise to rely on one in Istanbul, whoever is fit.

He has always maintained that English teams do not have the mentality to play for a draw - "a corner against you with two minutes to go, they score and it's goodnight". As if to back him up, Arsenal (with Ashley Cole and Campbell), United (Gary Neville and Ferdinand) and Chelsea (John Terry and Wayne Bridge) have all been exposed by swift counter-attacking in European competition this season.

Turkey could not quite pull that off at the Stadium of Light, and in Istanbul - where there will be more heat than light - they will be the team relying on full-blooded attacking in front of a passionate crowd. Third at the last World Cup, they have discovered an exciting new forward this season in Tuncay Sanli of Fenerbahce, who impressed the England coaching staff with his performance in a 2-2 draw against the Republic of Ireland last month. Nicknamed "the Turkish Shevchenko" after the Milan striker for the strength of his all-round game, he is expected by the locals to be retained on his home ground, playing just behind the more experienced Hakan Sukur, who appeared with his compatriot Tugay in Blackburn's colours at the end of last season. In reserve will be the Besiktas pair of Sergen Yalcin and Ilhan Mansiz, familiar to Chelsea supporters for their two goals and two yellow cards respectively at Stamford Bridge in midweek.

The talented little Emre Belozoglu of Internazionale has made his mark in London this season, helping to take Arsenal apart at Highbury, and Eriksson expects him to be deployed behind the two strikers at the apex of a diamond midfield that should mirror England's formation. "It's important to know that we're meeting a very good football team, an excellent team, with a lot of good players, quick, very well organised and technically very good. So it's difficult. But it's a very difficult game for Turkey as well. If we can score [first] then it'll be very difficult for them. So I'm confident. But it's important what's going to happen this weekend for us with injuries. If we have few injuries, we have a very good football team."

It is an important rider. So is Eriksson's repeated warning that all the good work on the pitch could be ruined if even a handful of England supporters - about 150 are expected to defy all pleas not to travel - become involved in any trouble. For the sensible majority who stay at home, Saturday night's televisual entertainment promises to provide quite compelling enough drama, in which England are capable of achieving the draw they want - if Eriksson gets the best out of his people.