Macedonia threaten to make clowns out of England's circus

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The Independent Football

If and when Sven Goran Eriksson, the England manager, decides to follow his celebrated captain and write an autobiography, it will be tempting, for the section covering his current period of employment, to purloin the title of Sir Tim Rice's life story: Oh What A Circus. There is no such thing these days as a low-profile England match, least of all one - like this evening's against Macedonia - involving David Beckham and in a major tournament from which the team could be expelled if supporters specifically told not to attend cause any problems.

Hooliganism, since the trouble during the European Championship qualifying match in Slovakia 11 months ago, is firmly back on the agenda. Following events at the home game against Turkey in April, the Football Association, grateful to escape with nothing more than a £68,000 fine, wisely declined to take tickets for the return match next month or today's game.

Given the cooperation of police forces across Europe, the strict attitude of customs officials here and the presence of police spotters from England, it is surprising that reports suggest as many as 1,000 may make it to the Macedonian capital.

More alarming is the fact that a BBC reporter was yesterday able to walk into the main town square and openly purchase a match ticket at cost price (£6) from a seller apparently authorised by the Macedonian Football Association. Any England followers who took advantage will find themselves in an unsegregated area where the locals may not be as hospitable as they have been to the rest of us.

Then there is the whole Beckham phenomenon, illustrated by his entrance to a media conference yesterday, protected by a minder with an arm thrown round him while photographers and cameramen threatened to trample anyone in their path. At least he was not wearing the rather fetching sky-blue David Beckham skullcap on sale 100 yards away in the impressively modernised shopping arcade.

Once safely inside, England's captain made the expected noises about his minor groin strain - "I've done a lot of intense work in the last couple of days, so I don't think there's a problem". It was impossible to disprove or substantiate on the basis of the short stretching session at today's venue open to the media. More of a worry was the bobbly playing surface, which was a contributory factor to the poor first-half performance away to Slovakia.

Four days after recovering from a half-time deficit to win that game 2-1, England found their qualifying campaign seriously handicapped by the error-strewn 2-2 draw against Macedonia at Southampton. It vies with the home defeat by Australia as the worst result of the manager's three years in charge.

The consequence is that - taking for granted victories over Liechtenstein by Turkey today and England on Wednesday at Old Trafford - a draw here is mathematically no better than a defeat. Either result would mean having to win in Istanbul to avoid the lottery of a two-leg play-off for the finals.

Feeble as England were at Southampton, Macedonia had the wit and the players to take advantage. Despite winning only one qualifying match out of six (3-1 at home to Liechtenstein) they have impressed Eriksson, who said yesterday: "They've been unlucky so far. I saw both games against Turkey and was very impressed with what they did in the first half away. They led 1-0 and 2-1 and deserved to win that game, though they lost 3-2 in the end. They played really good football with a lot of good players. This is a difficult game."

It has not been made any easier by the loss of three Eriksson regulars, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, nor by Real Madrid's insistence on playing a Spanish League game this week, resulting in question marks over Beckham's participation here. With changes in personnel forced upon him, Eriksson intimated that he was reluctant to tinker tactically as well. If he keeps his favoured diamond shape in midfield, Chelsea's Frank Lampard can expect to be the furthest man forward, with Nicky Butt in front of the back-four and Owen Hargreaves on the left.

The danger of the system against a 3-5-2 formation like Macedonia's is that the wider players - in this case Beckham and Hargreaves - tend to be drawn into the centre, leaving too much scope for the opposition's wing-backs. Croatia last month and Slovakia at the back-end of last season took advantage, exposing Ashley Cole's defensive limitations, and while Gary Neville can take care of himself, Hargreaves will need to protect Cole if England hope to improve on a disappointing record of two clean sheets in 10 games since the World Cup. Ten goals between Beckham and Michael Owen in those matches offer greater encouragement, whether Wayne Rooney or Emile Heskey is chosen to partner Owen in attack.

Macedonia's new coach, Dragan Kanatlarovski, says his team have nothing to lose, but will play patiently and wait for their chances. Judging by England's recent defensive performances, there will be a few of those. Eriksson's men, in contrast, have everything to lose and will need much discipline on and off the pitch if the circus is to leave town intact.