Southgate fears weaken case for Sven's defence

Euro 2004 countdown: Eriksson hopes to avoid catastrophes of the World Cup - but injury cloud won't go away
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The Independent Online

England's head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, will spend one last anxious day with his mobile telephone switched on before finalising the list of 23 players in a provisional list for Euro 2004 to be revealed at London's Cafe Royal tomorrow. The final selection need not be faxed to the championship organisers until 2 June, the day after the first of two friendlies that week at the City of Manchester stadium.

England's head coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, will spend one last anxious day with his mobile telephone switched on before finalising the list of 23 players in a provisional list for Euro 2004 to be revealed at London's Cafe Royal tomorrow. The final selection need not be faxed to the championship organisers until 2 June, the day after the first of two friendlies that week at the City of Manchester stadium.

Middlesbrough's Gareth Southgate and Aston Villa's Darius Vassell both missed their clubs' final Premiership match yesterday, but Eriksson is optimistic about avoiding the sort of carnage that struck his squad before the 2002 World Cup. On that occasion two midfielders, Kieron Dyer and Steven Gerrard, were both badly injured on the last day of the domestic season, at which point neither David Beckham nor Nicky Butt were certain of being fit for the opening game. Danny Murphy was called up but withdrew, and Trevor Sinclair collected enough air miles for a lifetime's holidays in flying to and from the Far East before Owen Hargreaves' injury gave him a place.

If midfield was the problem area two years ago, it is central defence that has been keeping the coach awake at night this time. Already resigned to being without the injured Jonathan Woodgate and the suspended Rio Ferdinand, he has been warned by Middlesbrough's manager, Steve McClaren, that Southgate may not recover in time from his knee problem. McClaren has himself been drafted in as a coach in place of Brian Kidd, which means that the coaching line-up is exactly the same as in 2002; they should therefore all be aware of the dangers of not taking players who may break down.

Asked whether Southgate would be ready, Eriksson yesterday said: "I doubt it. He can't start practising until the beginning of June, so that means it's very difficult for him." He also talked down the chances of Manchester United's Wes Brown: "After two bad injuries he is not the same player he was."

That means an opening for Tottenham's Ledley King, who has recovered from his recent injury after making a surprisingly impressive impact in Portugal three months ago. The final choice would then be between Liverpool's Jamie Carragher, who can play in several positions without being of international class in any of them, and Southgate's recently ignored clubmate Ugo Ehiogu.

The Swede's policy, like Chelsea's, is to have what Claudio Ranieri calls two "champions" for every position. His first XI virtually pick themselves, and interest in tomorrow's list is essentially confined to reserves and potential substitutes. At full-back, Gary Neville, Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge will be named, and Phil Neville deserves to get the nod ahead of the volatile Danny Mills, despite the latter having played every minute of England's World Cup 2002 campaign.

John Terry will be undisputed first choice to partner Sol Campbell, whom Arsenal are prepared to release even though his groin would benefit from a summer's rest, if not an operation. His club physiotherapist, Gary Lewin, who doubles as England's, will be monitoring him.

Midfield has been a well-stocked area, so much so that assuming Dyer is fit, there is only room for one of Joe Cole, Jermaine Jenas and Scott Parker. Each would have their supporters, especially Parker, chosen as Young Player of the Year by his peers for his work at Charlton, though unable to establish himself as quickly as he would have hoped at Chelsea - largely because of Ranieri's tendency to play him out of position on the right. But since we are talking substitutes, Cole - inconsistent as he has been - is the one with the right level of confidence to come on and influence a game with a touch of the unexpected.

For the first game, against France on 13 June, Eriksson has already said he wants a compact midfield diamond to stifle Zinedine Zidane and company. His personal preference for the Manchester United pair Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, as the holding player and the most advanced respectively, is not borne out by recent form, and would mean no starting place for Frank Lampard. There will be no Sinclair and almost certainly no Shaun Wright-Phillips, so Dyer is the only one of the eight midfielders who is a genuine winger. Eriksson may also come in for criticism for his use of Gerrard, more dynamic in central midfield, on the left side.

Eriksson said of Gerrard: "He could play anywhere in midfield. He would like to play central, but in the friendlies against Japan and Iceland [on 1 June and 5 June] I will probably use him on the left, in a diamond system. I will use him on the left and David Beckham on the right."

Eriksson's reputation as something of a Tinkerman is based solely on friendly matches. For the important competitive ones, he has been so consistent that the team likely to start the first match show only two changes from the one that played at home to Turkey 14 months earlier, both of them enforced: Terry for Ferdinand and Ashley Cole fit to replace Bridge, who played on that wild night in Sunderland. It was also the night that Wayne Rooney made his full debut, and the memory of it, the complete lack of nerves on a huge stage, should encourage the manager to want him alongside Michael Owen in the other Stadium of Light - Lisbon's.

Vassell made the vital breakthrough with England's first goal in that game, confirming he has never let the manager down. Although suffering with a hamstring injury, he is still ahead of Alan Smith in the pecking order and probably in front of Defoe, who would benefit from attending a major tournament. Unkind as it sounds, the national interest might best be served if Vassell, who has been in modest form, was left behind to recover properly.

In fact, form as much as fitness is a worry for England. Who out of David James, Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Dyer, Joe Cole, Rooney, Owen, Vassell and Emile Heskey could claim to have had a good season? Four weeks from Lisbon, it is not an encouraging thought.

ERIKSSON'S LIKELY 23

Probable starting line-up

Goalkeeper
David James

Defence
Gary Neville
Sol Campbell
John Terry
Ashley Cole

Midfield
David Beckham
Nicky Butt
Steven Gerrard
Paul Scholes

Forwards
Wayne Rooney
Michael Owen
The shadow men

Goalkeepers
Paul Robinson
Ian Walker

Defence
Phil Neville
Jamie Carragher
Ledley King
Wayne Bridge

Midfield
Kieron Dyer
Owen Hargreaves
Joe Cole
Frank Lampard

Forwards
Emile Heskey
Darius Vassell

On standby: Robert Green, Danny Mills, Ugo Ehiogu, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Scott Parker, Jermain Defoe

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