Gerrard injury adds to England midfield minefield

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The Independent Football

As Sven Goran Eriksson pondered the challenge ahead of him in tonight's World Cup qualifier against Austria, the photograph that provided the backdrop to his press conference here yesterday probably did little for his confidence. The faces of Michael Owen, Sol Campbell, Nicky Butt, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney would normally give hope to an England coach, but Eriksson knows that Owen is the only one of that quintet certain to make his starting line up here in the Ernst Happel Stadium.

While this is still a match that England should win with something to spare, Eriksson's plans have had to change almost every day this week because of injuries. Unable to select Campbell, Rooney and Jonathan Woodgate in his squad because they were unfit, Eriksson has since been forced to contemplate some radical changes to his midfield.

Butt dropped out of contention at the start of the week with a hamstring injury and may not even be available for next Wednesday's qualifier against Poland, while Gerrard has a groin problem which prevented him taking a full part in training yesterday and is reckoned to have only a 50-50 chance of playing. Even Shaun Wright-Phillips, a possible midfield replacement, was troubled by an ankle injury in training earlier in the week.

After a European Championship which ultimately ended in disappointment - despite Eriksson's insistence yesterday that England had proved again that there is "very little difference" between them and the best teams in the world - and a summer in which his private life has rarely been out of the news, the Swede knows that failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup would do nothing for his job prospects.

England have been drawn in a comparatively easy group, although there is no room for complacency as they start with two of their toughest matches, here tonight and in Katowice next Wednesday. Wales, Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland complete the line-up.

For a coach who has always stressed the importance of playing a settled team, the fact that Eriksson might end up playing only one of his regular midfield players - Frank Lampard - in his normal England position tonight is a concern.

Gerrard's fitness is the key. If he plays, alongside Lampard

in the centre and with Beckham on the right flank, the only question is the perennial problem of who to select on the left, particularly in the light of the international retirement of Paul Scholes. Wayne Bridge would be the most cautious option and Joe Cole the most ambitious, but there were some hints yesterday that the role could go to Owen Hargreaves.

Although Eriksson said he thought Hargreaves' best position was in the centre of midfield, he added: "He's hard-working, he can run all day, he's clever. He must be a clever footballer because he's played everywhere for Bayern Munich - left-back, right-back, outside right, outside left, centre. He's a very good all-round footballer. And if you tell him to do something on the pitch he does it."

If Gerrard does not recover in time - Eriksson said a decision would be made at lunchtime and he would not be selected if there was any chance of aggravating the injury - the midfield picture becomes complicated. One option would be to give Hargreaves the central midfield position, with Bridge likely to fill the left-flank berth, but a more likely solution would be to move Beckham inside and give a chance on the right to Wright-Phillips, who took so readily to international football when he scored an excellent goal within 20 minutes of making his debut in last month's friendly victory over Ukraine.

Perhaps significantly, Eriksson said: "I talked to David Beckham yesterday and he said he had no problems playing in the centre or at outside right. I think he likes playing there and he looks more at home there. He did a very good job for Real Madrid there and if you can play there for Real Madrid you can play there for England."

The other enforced changes appear to be more straightforward. Ledley King, who did so well against France in Euro 2004, looks sure to replace Campbell alongside John Terry in the centre of defence, while Rooney's shirt seems certain to go to his fellow Manchester United summer recruit, Alan Smith.

It would be Smith's first start in a competitive game since he was sent off against Macedonia two years ago. Eriksson said: "He has much more experience today. I think he can handle his aggression much better than a couple of years ago. He's improved as a player and of course it suits him to play when he has a lot of good footballers around him [at Manchester United].

"He's not only a target man today. Often when I went to see him at Leeds he was a target man, fighting against a big strong centre-half. Now he shows a lot of movement, he's improved technically and he's scoring some good goals."

Eriksson has not had the chance to watch tonight's opponents but has seen them on tape and says they are well organised and hard-working. However, they lost 3-1 in a friendly at home to Germany last month and results under Hans Krankl, the coach, have not matched up to the years when he led them to the 1978 and 1982 World Cup tournaments, let alone the 1930s, when Austria were one of the great powers of world football.

Austria qualified for the 1990 and 1998 World Cups but have failed in 10 successive attempts to reach the European Championship finals. They will, however, be guaranteed a place in the 2008 competition: Austria are joint hosts with Switzerland and indeed will stage the final at tonight's venue.

England have met Austria in a competitive match only once before, a 2-2 draw in the group stage of the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden. They last met here 25 years ago in a friendly, when Kevin Keegan, Steve Coppell and Ray Wilkins scored as England went down 4-3. On their previous meeting, in a 1973 friendly at Wembley, England won 7-0.

Tonight's match is unlikely to provide a third successive seven-goal feast. For Eriksson and England, however, a scrappy 1-0 victory would be quite sufficient.