Sven Goran Eriksson has lost Shaun Wright-Phillips and Sol Campbell to injury for England's World Cup qualifiers this month, and is now likely to abandon his unpopular 4-3-3 formation against Northern Ireland in the absence of his precocious young winger.
It was the Manchester City player, 23, whose form was the driving force behind the England coach switching to 4-3-3 against the Netherlands and a formation that allowed him to also accommodate David Beckham. However, it emerged yesterday that Wright-Phillips will be out for up to eight weeks after undergoing a knee operation following his side's 3-2 victory over Norwich City on Tuesday.
That means the season is virtually over for one of the Premiership's most promising players only seven months after he scored as a substitute on his England debut against Ukraine at St James' Park. His performances for City forced him into the England squad and, despite his playing in Beckham's right-wing position, Eriksson juggled the line-up to include them both in the match against the Netherlands on 9 February.
The 4-3-3 formation, with Wright-Phillips playing in a forward line with Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, was widely condemned as a failure. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were restricted to predominantly defensive roles and England struggled to a 0-0 draw against a weakened Dutch side. The problem of accommodating Beckham and Wright-Phillips in the same England team was set to be one of the key issues surrounding the World Cup qualifiers against Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan later this month.
However, with Wright-Phillips out, Eriksson is likely to return to 4-4-2 again. "Shaun has arguably been our best player for the last three seasons, so to lose him is a big blow," said the Manchester City manager, Kevin Keegan. "There is no question he needs the operation but while we have been told to expect a six to eight week recovery, with Shaun we could be looking at five or six because he is such a quick healer and won't take much getting fit."
Although Campbell's absence comes at a time when Arsenal are still without Gilberto Silva, Edu, Robert Pires and Justin Hoyte through injury, the question of his fitness will be less of a worry for Eriksson, who knows that he has John Terry as an able deputy, but the fitness problems of the Arsenal defender are a long-term concern for his career. The 30-year-old has been out with an Achilles problem since Arsenal's defeat to Manchester United on 1 February.
Yesterday, the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger confirmed that Campbell would definitely miss the Premiership game against Portsmouth, next week's Champions' League second-leg tie against Bayern Munich as well as the FA Cup sixth-round match against Bolton. Even if he returns on 19 March against Blackburn it will only give him seven days to prove his fitness before the match against Northern Ireland on 26 March and Azerbaijan four days later.
"Sol has still not been out on the training pitch yet," Wenger said. "It will be very close for the England games. I feel he will be out for another two to three weeks. He should come out and run next Wednesday, so he could just be available for England, although he would have played one game maximum by then. Who do England play though - Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan? You shouldn't need to inject him to play them.
"The ankle is still not right. We have now decided not to rush him back. He has a heavy build so when he goes out on his ankle, he puts a heavy weight on it. So he must be completely right. There is no medical sign that we should be concerned by a longer-term problem but I cannot deny that he hasn't played enough this season."
For their match against Portsmouth today, Arsenal have Thierry Henry back in the side after injury ruled him out of the FA Cup replay against Sheffield United on Tuesday. Wenger has to choose between Robin van Persie and the 19-year-old Quincy Owusu-Abeyie.
"Thierry is fit so he will play," he said. "As for the second striker, I don't know who it will be - Quincy or Van Persie. Quincy is just 19 and has qualities that can give him a chance. As for Van Persie, I said what I had to say after the game [when the Dutch youngster was sent off following a second yellow card for his rash challenge on the Southampton full-back Graeme Le Saux].
"He has been fined and told what was wrong with his attitude and his behaviour. I feel he has learned his lesson. After that, you have to forget about it, get on with it and give him a chance again.
"Both are very close though. What Quincy has done on Tuesday night [in the Cup win against Sheffield United] means he is in no one's shadow. I will see how he has recovered."
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- David Beckham
- Manchester City
- Michael Owen
- Paris Saint-Germain FC
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- Shaun Wright-phillips
- Sol Campbell
- St James' Park
- Sven-goran Eriksson
- The Netherlands