Gary Neville said yesterday that the England team have five "world-class" players and are the strongest side he has ever been involved in.
The Manchester United defender named his club team-mate Paul Scholes, the England captain, David Beckham, Sol Campbell, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen as the élite and said Wayne Rooney had the potential to join them.
Neville, 29, said: "You talk about a team that wins the World Cup or European Championship needing to have four or five world-class players. I don't think you should throw the brand 'world-class' around lightly but we have four or five players who would grace every other team in the tournament - and I include France." The holders are England's first opponents in Euro 2004 - a competition that Neville said has to be won to eradicate the disappointment of Euro '96 in particular.
He is one of only four survivors - along with his brother, Phil, Campbell and the goalkeeper Ian Walker - from that competition, when England went out in the semi-finals on penalties. "Until that is put to bed it will always burn with me. It was a great chance to win a championship in our own country and make names for ourselves. Now we have another chance and we have to grab it," he said.
He added: "I'm not one of those who believes in 'this team will reach its peak in 2065'. It's about now. It's got to be now - not in two years or four years. It has to be now."
His appetite has undoubtedly been sharpened by missing the last World Cup through injury. "I thought in the year before Japan we had one of the best periods in the history of the England team in terms of the performances in qualifying," he said Neville, who has 61 caps. "Technically, this is the best England team I've played in. That's plain for everybody to see looking at the last 10 years."
Neville defended the midfield diamond formation deployed by Sven Goran Eriksson. "We've got players and a system that's the best England have played in all the time I've been involved," he said. "People get obsessed with 'we have to have this or that' but we're playing with a fluent system and we're better prepared to keep the ball than we have been at any other time."
Neville said there was "more pressure" on France, as favourites. "We can beat anybody on our day and we have to prove that," he said. "We've got as good a chance as anybody. It's a case of whether we can perform on the day and have the little bit of luck you need."
Preparations are going well, he said. "We're probably in the best shape that we could be in. Anything can happen in a match but before we go out to play France I think we'll know if we've got a chance. All we asked after the World Cup was to go into a championship with everybody fit - and touch wood, this squad is free of injury."
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