Scholes thrives on sense of duty

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The Manchester United midfielder is happy to play any international role that is required.

The Manchester United midfielder is happy to play any international role that is required.

Not for exactly a year - since the game against Belgium at Sunderland last October - has an England team taken the field without Paul Scholes. It is a record unique among the current squad and illustrates the importance that Kevin Keegan has come to place on his little ginger-nut, easily the most effective attacking midfielder at his disposal.

In Paris last month, the manager had enough faith to play him in a new position as a split-striker just behind his Manchester United team-mate Andy Cole, before withdrawing him late in the game to send on Michael Owen. This time a role in the hole behind Owen and Cole seems likely, which, since he has as good an international scoring record (10 goals in 28 games) as the Liverpool man, will give Germany's defenders something to think about. They will remember too the take on his chest and instant volley in the Euro 2000 meeting in Charleroi that might have settled England down before Alan Shearer's goal did so.

As with David Beckham, alongside whom he sat while addressing the media yesterday, Scholes' best position has been a subject of some debate. At the time of his debut for United, as a 19-year-old substitute away to Ipswich in September 1994, he was regarded as a promising young striker, who might eventually succeed Eric Cantona; once Cole and Teddy Sheringham teamed up, Alex Ferguson took the inspired decision to move Scholes further back, where a naturally competitive nature has been allied to equally instinctive goal-scoring ability. Since the time that Glenn Hoddle awarded him a first international cap three years ago, coming on for Sheringham on home ground at Old Trafford against South Africa, he has rarely been out of the side.

As it is not advisable for players to take their place for granted, however, whether with United or England, nor to go public on which position they prefer to play, Scholes sensibly confined himself yesterday to expressing gratitude at his continuing involvement. He enjoyed the experiment as what Joni Mitchell might have called a free man in Paris but is aware that, as one of a midfield four, he is required to perform defensive duties as well. "I think in international games they seem to have a lot more midfielders for some reason," he said. "A lot of teams play three in there. If I'm getting forward, like in the summer, it left Paul Ince with two or three coming right at him. I suppose I do have to time my runs a bit better and you've got to know when the right time to go is. I want to be scoring goals, but at the same time there's no point in me scoring if I'm going to let a few in. Maybe I did try and get forward a bit too much. I think I need to balance it out a bit more."

Two of his rare international absences were caused by suspension following a sending off at home to Sweden, after Keegan had borrowed a line from Bill Shankly and told him to "go out and drop hand grenades".

That would hardly be the most appropriate metaphor against Germany and Scholes believes that, although sparks were flying towards the end of the game in Charleroi, England players will not allow the importance of the occasion on Saturday to push them into indiscretion: "Obviously it's important that people do keep their temper. I think most of the players have got a good temperament and I don't think it will be a problem. Every one of us has played in big games before."

Question: Was that your worst moment at Wembley, when you were sent off against Sweden?

Answer: Yes.

Implication: Change the subject.

Last summer's victory over the Germans sounded like safer ground. "It shows we can beat them," Scholes said. "It was a while before we beat them last time and I think it may give us a bit more belief that we can actually do it, but I don't think you'd be able to take too much from that game. They weren't in the best of spirits, their team so it will still be a difficult game for us."