Talisman Becks now needs to be a statesman

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The Independent Football

We've been here before, haven't we? This time, it's the saga of the skipper's sole rather than a matter of the maestro's metatarsal. Still, the prelude to an important England game would not be quite the same without an injury to that celebrated figure becoming a drama, swiftly developing into a crisis.

Last time, ahead of the World Cup, such concerns were more than justified. As Gareth Southgate confirms in a new autobiography, the publication of which will hardly be considered timely by Sven Goran Eriksson: "Some of our key men were not 100 per cent. David Beckham struggled..."

This time, Beckham's Real Madrid club doctor, Juan Carlos Hernandez, has issued an optimistic bulletin about the midfielder's foot in the countdown to England's decisive game against Turkey. Anti-inflammatory drugs have apparently done the trick.

The only question now is: will the psyche of the England captain receive similar treatment? If ever there was an occasion for Beckham to demonstrate that he is not merely a captain of industry who invests heavily in his resources of exuberance and emotion, but also one who can steer his vessel into calmer waters should it head into the anticipated tempest, this is it.

Those of us who have not believed Beckham possesses suitably sober, statesmanlike qualities will prepare for the game in Istanbul with some trepidation. His celebratory gestures, both at the Stadium of Light against Turkey in early April, and last month in Macedonia, when he led his team-mates towards a group of England followers whom the FA had decreed should not be there, were unnecessary and potentially inflammatory.

But just as crucially, it must be asked, does he possess the authority to ensure that England's midfield retains its discipline, maintains its shape? Because that is, arguably, where the match will be drawn - or lost, together with England's Euro 2004 qualifying fate.

In Nicky Butt, Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes - the likeliest formation - England boast a midfield of enterprise, consid- erable energy, and confidence, but all have a propensity for going mentally AWOL. Unless England score early and cause Turkey self-doubt, which you sense could spread like a virus through a volatile crowd and create even further tension for the home players, the suspicion is that the naturally attack-minded trio of Beckham, Gerrard and Scholes will have to quell their enthusiasm for adventure.

This will be no stage for Gerrard to yield possession with those ambitious 40-yarders, Beckham to drift inside with abandon but leave one flank unpatrolled, Scholes to display anything but those tenacious qualities which made him one of Europe's most admired midfielders. Possession, with the principal aim of frustrating Senol Gunes's team, will be nine-tenths of Eriksson's Law.

The evening will also provide an examination of the status of the Swede himself. How he responds to England securing a lead; Turkey estab-lishing an advantage. Does he start with his orthodox line-up, with familiar personnel, or adapt it to the unusual circumstances? Does he utilise Wayne Rooney from the beginning, as a substitute, or decide that this arena is no place for a 17-year-old who has been worryingly prone to petulance this season?

It is curious the effect that one decision can have. Back in early April, some critics were all for casting Eriksson into eternal damnation. After an ultimately disappointing World Cup, England had drawn with Portugal, beaten Slovakia, drawn at home with Macedonia and been defeated by Australia. The defeat of Liechtenstein was hardly sufficient to deter his detractors.

Then he thrust Rooney into the fray for his full debut against Turkey at the Stadium of Light. After an inauspicious first half, Rooney illuminated the place with an intrepid performance. England's 2-0 victory was scarcely the springboard for a series of convincing displays. But results since (admittedly, four by a 2-1 scoreline) have sustained Eriksson, and his stock has apparently risen.

If there is one certainty about the team that Eriksson names with the aim of procuring a draw at least next Saturday, it is that Southgate will not be present. The Middlesbrough defender is injured anyway, although, mild-mannered coach that Eriksson is, it is unlikely he will have taken too kindly to Southgate's analysis of his capabilities.

Which is not to say that Woody and Nord: A Football Friendship, a double autobiography written by Southgate and his former Crystal Palace team-mate Andy Woodman, does not have a refreshing veracity. Still, it is certainly not designed to persuade Eriksson that Southgate should be recalled to the England fold: "Sven has given us a definite and easily understood game-plan without broadening our tactical approach. I feel we need to expand our game to succeed at the highest level".

Back in April, it didn't require too much of an expansion by Eriksson's men to overcome Turkey, who, perhaps surprised by Rooney, capitulated more obligingly than anticipated. Or was it that England were just responding to those who had offered them no chance against the World Cup semi-finalists? As Gary Neville reflected: "I think it was an angry performance, but I think we played with our heads as well."

This will be a different challenge altogether, but the second element of that statement remains as pertinent now as it did then.