Untested Carrick given central role in Eriksson's latest gamble

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The Independent Football

As the Swedish maestro taps the rostrum and calls the orchestra to attention for what could be the last time, the music, as Eriksson is fond of saying, has been changed again. Tomorrow, the 4-4-2 formation has morphed into 4-1-4-1, but instead of Owen Hargreaves in the holding role, it is Carrick - the man who appeared to have fluffed his lines against Belarus in the B international in May and seemed condemned to a World Cup among the non-playing tourists.

Consider Carrick's England record. The 24-year-old has five full caps, three as a substitute, with almost four years between his first two, against Mexico and the Netherlands in 2001, and his third, against America on last summer's tour. He has never figured in a competitive game for England and not played a minute of this World Cup finals.

That is not the only tremor that is set to ripple through Eriksson's first XI, as Steven Gerrard comes back into a five-man midfield and Hargreaves switches to right-back at the expense of Jamie Carragher. It is dreadfully harsh on the Liverpool man, who has performed admirably in a position with which, in club football, he has become increasingly less familiar. Rio Ferdinand is expected to be passed fit in time but Carragher could yet get a reprieve if his groin injury fails to subside.

It is a bold hand that Eriksson plays as he enters the last uncertain phase of life in a Football Association suit. Carrick's pedigree in the Premiership is not in doubt but there has been no suggestion since England arrived in Germany that he was being saved for a special occasion or a specific match. He simply appeared to have lost the trust of Eriksson who, against Hungary three weeks ago, placed Carragher and Hargreaves ahead of him in the holding role pecking order.

The England support in Stuttgart tomorrow will hope that Carrick has, at long last, shown Eriksson more than a glimpse in training that he is the man to solve the conundrum of Gerrard and Frank Lampard's apparent incompatibility. They may fear that this is a manager who, having exhausted all his options, is hunting back through his discarded formations in the hope of an old idea that may warrant a revival.

This is an astonishing opportunity for Carrick, a quiet, likeable Geordie who has been pursued by Manchester United this summer. If he makes this extravagantly talented midfield tick then his effect on the tournament will be profound. It is a dangerous comparison to make but in 1966 it was also the third different formation that Alf Ramsey selected, for England's fourth game, the quarter-final against Argentina, that proved his winning combination.

Gary Neville is out again, Michael Owen is watching the game on television at home. This is the backdrop against which Eriksson's latest tinkering takes place and there is little doubt that without one of his two key strikers he has to unlock the attacking potential of Gerrard and Lampard. Wayne Rooney's role alone in attack is a major task for a player who has not yet completed 90 minutes, and England must attempt to score while their 20-year-old front man is still fresh. This will be a difficult system in which to accommodate Peter Crouch.

The main threat will come from Antonio Valencia on the right and it was with crosses from that flank that England were tested yesterday in training - a major concern after the panicky response to Sweden's 12 corners on Tuesday night. Steve McClaren took the drill and there was a personal admission about the England manager in waiting: he did not leak the story about Alan Shearer's possible appointment as coach when he takes over.

For all the changes in formation, the injuries, the heat in Frankfurt, the misses in Nuremberg and the chaos in Cologne, David Beckham said yesterday that his side advance into the first knock-out round with confidence. His aspect was uncharacteristically defensive when he spoke at England's Buhlertal training ground yesterday - arms folded, brow furrowed - and he described a squad that, he said, had not lost its way despite injury or the fluctuations of form.

"We have lost players, we have had situations that have not gone right, but it has gone right as a team," he said. "We are right. The togetherness couldn't be any stronger. Apart from Michael and Gary - who hopefully will be fit for the weekend - everyone is fit. Everything else, apart from that [the injuries], is perfect."

They may not have thrived but England have certainly endured and Beckham used the story of his Real Madrid team-mate Ronaldo as a parable of redemption. The Brazilian, of course, already has two World Cup winners' medals and his return to form against Japan appeared to be a source of inspiration for the England captain. "It's not the criticism of him as a player but the personal criticism about his shape and things like that," Beckham said. "Some of the people who are criticising him should know better."

Beckham argued his own case. "If I get the ball and have a yard of space I'll deliver it to someone to score a goal," he said, "99 per cent of the time I'll put it in the right place for someone to score." The hand of history, however, rests heaviest on his manager's shoulder.

The people of Ecuador have, in the last 10 years, deposed seven presidents and sent five of them into an undignified exile. Their football team have the opportunity to do the same to a figure of international acclaim from another country. Eriksson enters the final chapter with a man in midfield who he ignored for four years. Carrick's exile is over: Eriksson hopes his will not begin tomorrow evening.

How the goals have been scored

ENGLAND

Goals conceded: 2

From two set-pieces (corner headed in and long throw, tapped in)

Goals scored: 5

One set-piece (free-kick, headed in) four open play (two long shots, two crosses headed in from right)

ECUADOR

Goals conceded: 3

One from corner, two from open play

Goals scored: 5

One set-piece (from long throw), four from open play (right-wing crosses)

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