Sven: 'I'm not worried about Rio'
England manager confirms faith in Ferdinand - bad news for restored Woodgate
Ferdinand was dropped for the World Cup qualifying game against Austria last month, rec-overing his place only because Sol Campbell pulled a hamstring after an hour's play. But Sven Goran Eriksson's enthus-iasm for him as a footballing centre-half was made clear on Friday when he said: "Rio is one of the best central defenders in the world, maybe the most complete central defender we have in this country. He can do every-thing. Maybe he's not in the best form, which happens to every player. If you take the last World Cup, I think he was the best defender there. And he's still young. So I can't see any reason why he shouldn't reach that level again. I'm not worried about Rio Ferdinand."
Others are, including his club captain, Roy Keane, and possibly Sir Alex Ferguson, and Eriksson admits that United's game against Chelsea this afternoon will be "a good test" for him. Along with Campbell and John Terry, however, Ferdinand is clearly still in the top three among a cluster of players pushing for a place in England's most oversubscribed position. Woodgate's task over the next few months is to prove he is worth the fourth central- defender's berth at the World Cup finals next summer.
Real Madrid have shown great faith in him after he missed the whole of the last season through injury following his expensive transfer from Newcastle. First capped by Kevin Keegan as long ago as 1999, he has played for his country only once since appearing in the three opening games of the 2002-03 season. But being named in the squad for Saturday's friendly against Argentina will provide a further lift for Woodgate, who told the Football Association website: "My England career? There hasn't been one. It hasn't started for me yet. I'm averaging a cap every 18 months! I'd say I'm more like an England fan than a player, because it's been such a long time since I've been involved.
"I did feel a bit on the outside of things last season. I was in the gym every day with the trainer while everyone else was playing. It was a hard time, but I've come through it and now I feel like I'm there and I'm involved."
Eriksson, having declined the opportunity to schedule an extra game on Wednesday week, is expecting full co-operation from the leading club managers in releasing players, so that he can field a first-choice team on Saturday apart from the injured full-backs Gary Neville and Ashley Cole. That will give an interesting insight into his thinking seven months before the first match in Germany. The first decision to make is whether to stick to a midfield anchorman, as used in the 2-1 victory over Poland, when Ledley King performed the role with some distinction.
It is the head coach's preferred system against strong opposition, a category into which Argentina unquestionably fall, and he has bad news for contenders like Scott Parker, Michael Carrick and the injured Owen Hargreaves: "I think Ledley King's the best option we have if we want to play like that. He does everything, is quick and can play football. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard can both do it but they are not very keen to, because they both want to to go forward." Doing so at the same time has been a problem in the past, but Eriksson believes that pair can operate successfully against weaker opposition in a flat midfield four, playing in between David Beckham and "maybe" Joe Cole. Note the "maybe", Joe, even after 27 international appearances.
Votes of confidence with a place in the squad will be awarded today to David James, Wayne Bridge and Peter Crouch. James has responded well since being dropped after his wretched performance as a second-half substitute in Denmark, holding his hands up (rather than letting the ball through them). The plan was originally to give Chris Kirkland his international debut at last as a substitute, but he is injured once more. Bridge is fit again, though Eriksson also has West Ham's left-back Paul Konchesky in mind.
The Swede is not affected either by any of the doubts assailing Liverpool supporters - and perhaps the player himself - about Peter Crouch, the non-scoring striker. "I should like to have him in the World Cup squad," Eriksson said. "He's very special. I know he's not a big goalscorer yet but he can give you a lot of other options. He will score goals. Crouch is not the most elegant football player in the world, but against Austria he did a very good job for us. Looking at the Prozone statistics, he covered more ground in that match than any other player."
It remains debatable, however, whether he works any harder, or is even any better in the air, than Charlton's unlucky Darren Bent, who has now reverted back to the Under-21s, along with Kieran Richardson, for their European Championship play-off matches against France.
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