Sven still swears by Beckham

Eriksson resists call for on-song Lennon to start for England but admits captain could switch inside
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Sven Goran Eriksson has reasserted his admiration for the burgeoning talent of Tottenham's Aaron Lennon, following his performance for the England B team. However, the England coach is adamant that the place of his captain, David Beckham, is not in jeopardy on the right flank.

In a somewhat strained atmosphere after his team's 2-1 defeat by Belarus, Eriksson was asked if he could imagine starting a World Cup game without his captain - assuming he was fit. "No. If Beckham is fit; if Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen are fit - if you talk about midfielders and forwards - they should all start," he stressed.

"All are in good condition except Rooney. So, I can't see any reason why I should do that [omit Beckham]."

He added pointedly: "I am talking not about a mediocre football team; I am talking about players who are considered among the best in the world. The fact is today that all four midfielders are in great form. It is not like it was before Japan. Then Beckham was half-injured, 70 per cent, whatever. Now everyone is 100 per cent. All of them have completed a fitness test, and they did much, much better than two years ago in Portugal. There was also a huge difference with [their test results] four years ago."

Eriksson, though, was swift to compliment Lennon on the manner in which he took on and eluded defenders. "If you are a football fan, you like to see that; players who can beat defenders, with a good technique, a good touch on the ball, scoring goals, and the pace, of course," he enthused.

Yet, Lennon is best deployed on the right. Exploiting his attributes would inevitably impact on Beckham's presence, it was put to him. "But I'm sure Lennon could also play as a second striker for the last 15 minutes; take the ball and beat people," insisted the Swede. "Or Beckham could move to the centre. Why not?"

Eriksson was asked whether he would consider Lennon for either of England's pre-World Cup friendlies, against Hungary on Tuesday and Jamaica on Saturday. "Maybe. I'm going to start with the best 11, and then we'll see. Maybe someone will tire, or go off injured." He added: "When you start a World Cup, you stick to your best side. But during it, who knows? Players don't perform well, and you can change your mind." Including Beckham? he was asked. "I can think about taking off whoever in that squad if I think things are going wrong. I did it in the past."

Beckham's recent England displays have lacked consistency. Yet he appears an untouchable, a theory supported by the evidence of the last World Cup. "In Japan, what was the alternative?" retorted the England coach. "I think that Beckham deserved to play even if he was not 100 per cent. There was not an alternative like Lennon."

In an interview in yesterday's L'Equipe, Eriksson spoke of "a last chance". "We haven't had as strong an England team as this one since the 1960s and the early 1970s. This country deserves to experience the ultimate emotion again. A scandal drummed up by a newspaper isn't going to prevent us doing everything to achieve that. For certain players, as for me, this will be the last chance. I'm thinking, for example, of Beckham... He's undoubtedly been Real Madrid's best player. He dreams of winning the World Cup."

He was asked what advice he would give to his assistant and successor, Steve McClaren? "Half-jokingly I explained in the past that, to have a peaceful life, an England manager mustn't like money, must stay locked away in his own house, have no private life and have a hide as thick as a rhinoceros. And lastly, he must never lose a match, above all away to Northern Ireland. Then, perhaps, he might be able to live happily. But I would say to him that he's going to do the most exciting job in the world."