US stage for Carrick and the new Cole

England on tour: Eriksson hoping to have Beckham and Owen available for both games on mission of political merit
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Sven Goran Eriksson hopes to give England's much-criticised trip to the United States a fillip by asking Real Madrid to release David Beckham and Michael Owen for the opening game if the Spanish League title has been decided. Madrid are guaranteed second place, but have little chance of catching the leaders, Barcelona, who are six points clear with three matches left.

Sven Goran Eriksson hopes to give England's much-criticised trip to the United States a fillip by asking Real Madrid to release David Beckham and Michael Owen for the opening game if the Spanish League title has been decided. Madrid are guaranteed second place, but have little chance of catching the leaders, Barcelona, who are six points clear with three matches left.

Both clubs were in action last night, and the championship should be sewn up well before the final fixtures, which clash with England's game against the US in New Jersey on Saturday week.

If Real put their foot down, Beckham's former Manchester United team-mate Gary Neville will deputise as captain, and Eriksson says he may try a new striking partnership of Crystal Palace's Andy Johnson and Southampton's Peter Crouch - both of whom could by then be Championship players if results go against their respective clubs today.

Whatever their status, they will be among a crop of fringe players keen to stake a claim for the one obvious vacancy among the strikers. In the absence of Wayne Rooney, there will also be at least half a game for Jermain Defoe and Alan Smith, either in New Jersey or three days later against Colombia. But Crouch remains the most interesting selection in the squad Eriksson announced last Thursday. "If you go to the World Cup, you need one tall striker," he said, implying that the 6ft 7in matchstick man could be the last throw of the dice in a key game if everything else had failed.

As ever, Eriksson, one of life's natural compromisers, has accepted a trade-off with leading managers by allowing them to keep one or two "injured or tired" players while releasing others. Thus Chelsea have given their blessing to full-back Glen Johnson (whose selection probably amazes Jose Mourinho) and Joe Cole, while sending John Terry and Frank Lampard to hospital for minor surgery; and Manchester United have held back Rio Ferdinand and Rooney but released Wes Brown, Smith and the Neville brothers.

Arsenal have agreed that their only two England candidates, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell, should both go, though the latter needs games anyway after his long absence with injury. Beckham is expected to recover from a slight strain to his left leg.

For players like Campbell and Joe Cole there is an important incentive in terms of convincing Eriksson that they should be first-choice selections when the serious stuff resumes early next season. The head coach revealed that Cole visited his office at the FA in the middle of last season, seeking advice about his lack of progress at Chelsea under Claudio Ranieri.

The Swede's recommendation was to stick it out, and Cole's new discipline has won him a place on the left of a midfield diamond in the past two internationals. He now needs to secure it, though Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing will want a proper opportunity to impress as a more natural winger and Manchester City's Shaun Wright-Phillips seeks the same chance on the opposite flank.

Tottenham's Michael Carrick deserves another outing as a playmaker, four years after his previous one, and will get it with Lampard and Steven Gerrard absent, though the greater need in midfield is arguably for a more defensive operator to replace Nicky Butt. At the back, Campbell has to prove he is better equipped than Terry as the eventual strongman alongside Ferdinand, whose absence puts Wes Brown and Birmingham's Matthew Upson in opposition for a place. David James's attitude since losing his place to Paul Robinson has impressed Eriksson, and he will be the No 1 again on because of the Tottenham goalkeeper's current injury.

Despite the incentives for so many players, Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson are among those to have condemned the trip - "tour" seems too grand a word for two games in the space of four days. Mourinho, for once, has kept his own counsel, which is probably just as well; it would be hard to deny accusations of hypocrisy if Chelsea condemned the notion of weary players representing their country and then rushed them off, as they are doing this week, for a game in South Korea against the club owned by their new sponsors, Samsung.

The FA's stance is a perfectly reasonable one. Having done their job well in ensuring there were no World Cup qualifying games in June, they were entitled to arrange a couple of friendly matches against opposition from outside Europe, such as they rarely encounter other than in World Cups these days. Like it or not, there is also a political aspect to winning friends and influencing the movers and shakers of world football around the globe, as well as making money: though estimates of the profits from this trip are already well down, because Colombia have replaced Argentina as opponents in the second game.

It has always been the tradition that matches are played abroad in the summer preceding a World Cup, often to useful effect in the country where the finals are being held. That was impractical this time, as next summer's hosts, Germany, are staging the Confederations' Cup from 15 to 29 June. So the clubs should be grateful England are not involved in it as winners of Euro 2004. Instead, players will be back home for their holidays on 1 June.

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