Keegan keeps confidence in old guard

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The Independent Football

NOT ONLY is it a friendly but it may be, if Poland take a point in Stockholm tomorrow, a largely meaningless match. It is almost inevitable, therefore, that Kevin Keegan finds himself with a full complement of fit players to choose from as he prepares for Sunday's Nationwide international against Belgium at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland.

NOT ONLY is it a friendly but it may be, if Poland take a point in Stockholm tomorrow, a largely meaningless match. It is almost inevitable, therefore, that Kevin Keegan finds himself with a full complement of fit players to choose from as he prepares for Sunday's Nationwide international against Belgium at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland.

David Beckham has, admittedly, already gone home and several players, notably Sol Campbell, Darren Anderton and Robbie Fowler, never even arrived, but the remaining 24 players at Bisham Abbey all reported ready and willing after training yesterday.

The walking wounded, Paul Scholes, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Alan Shearer, all trained and, assuming they do not suffer a reaction this morning, may all be selected regardless of the Sweden result.

"The experienced players are all part of World Cup thoughts as long as they keep playing for their clubs," said Keegan. "Even if I am looking to 2002 I still want the experienced players to be at the side of any kid coming in."

A knee injury has forced the withdrawal of the Standard Liege striker Mbo Mpenza from Belgium's squad. The coach, Robert Waseige, has replaced him with his fellow Standard striker Frederic Pierre.

Mpenza's brother, Emile, is also out after hurting his knee during training on Wednesday. Waseige has replaced him by giving an international recall to Sheffield Wednesday's Gilles de Bilde, who had previously quit the national team after a row with the former coach, Georges Leekens.

Coventry City's Robbie Keane has been declared fit for the Republic of Ireland's decisive European Championship Group Eight game away to Macedonia tomorrow.

The young striker was injured playing against Everton last Saturday and delayed his departure for Dublin, where he joined the rest of the squad on Monday. "It doesn't matter if he doesn't train at all this week," said the Irish manager, Mick McCarthy. "He's a naturally fit young guy."

Such is the team's consistency of performance and selections these days that, injuries aside, the starting 11 virtually picks itself. With Roy Keane and his usual deputy Lee Carsley both absent, Portsmouth's Alan McLoughlin is the obvious partner for Mark Kinsella in the centre of midfield.

Having signed a new two-year contract this week, McCarthy now hopes to make his mark on Irish football history by leading his adopted country to only their second European Championship finals. He was an unyielding centre-half for the first such campaign in 1988 and after succeeding Jack Charlton, whose side failed narrowly to qualify in the next two campaigns, the new coach led the Republic to a play-off for the World Cup finals.

That brought defeat by Belgium and underlined why the Irish are so keen to avoid the unpredictability of a two-leg eliminator this time. They will win the group with a victory tomorrow as long as Yugoslavia fail to win in their needle match away to Croatia.

The Norwich City forward Adrian Coote may have blown his chance of starting for Northern Ireland against Finland tomorrow after he missed yesterday's flight to Helsinki because he lost his passport.

Coote was forced to stay behind at Heathrow Airport when the Irish flew out yesterday morning. The 21-year-old is not expected to arrive in Helsinki until this morning.

Coote's blunder has disrupted the plans of his manager, Lawrie McMenemy, for Northern Ireland's final Euro 2000 qualifier. McMenemy may now pick Iain Dowie up front.

Ryan Giggs is hopeful he can recover from a hamstring injury in time to play for Wales in tomorrow's Euro 2000 qualifier with Switzerland at Wrexham.

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