Sam Wallace: Carragher goes from being 'not good enough' to Sven's midfield saviour

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The Independent Football

It is because Jamie Carragher is such a modest, likeable professional footballer - and tired of being described as a utility man - that the last time he was asked about the holding midfield role, he left no room for debate. "I'm not good enough to do that for England," he said. "There are better players than me who can play there."

That was October last year, as England prepared for their last two World Cup qualifiers against Austria and Poland. Nine months later and the holding midfield role is now Carragher's to lose. He starts there against Hungary tonight as the latest solution offered by Sven Goran Eriksson to a World Cup without Wayne Rooney. With the 20-year-old's scan moved forward by a week to 7 June that is a prospect that seems ever more likely.

The England team tonight is the team that Eriksson has said in the past he hopes will face Paraguay on 10 June. By then, Rooney could be out of the squad for good, and in his absence who would begrudge Carragher the chance to claim a place in the starting XI?

The case for a holding player has been growing for some time although it now seems that, in Eriksson's eyes, the man to fulfil that role is not Michael Carrick. If the Tottenham midfielder fluffed his audition against Belarus last Tuesday then you can only pity him that his chance came in such a strange game.

For Carragher, an English footballer to his boots, this is a wonderful opportunity to cap two formidable seasons. At 28, Carragher would be an England regular in any other generation, but just happens to be cursed by his position as the fourth choice behind three centre-backs in John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell. The holding midfield role is not how Carragher would have chosen to break into the England team, but given his chance he is too smart to be fussy about where he plays.

Carragher's early days at Liverpool saw him moved around the defence and occasionally into midfield but since then he has become an accomplished passer of the ball and an astute reader of the game. The defensive midfield role will hold no fears for him, but he will know that he needs to make a good impression tonight.

Good, because Eriksson is becoming more ruthless by the match. Without Rooney the England manager is deploying his side in a different formation every game and he is not waiting around for the stragglers. Relegated to the bench tonight, Carrick and Peter Crouch will know that there is no room for those who fail to impress the manager every game. As the end of his reign approaches, some of Eriksson's old loyalties are disappearing.

The choice of Carragher as the fifth midfielder means that England now line up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, more like Chelsea than ever before. But the decision also has an effect on the rest of the team and goes right to the heart of one of the most fundamental questions about Eriksson's side: the midfield combination of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

Gerrard it seems will start as an attacking midfielder in support of Owen, who, in his first full international since Argentina in November, will be glad of the support. The "perfect footballer" was how Owen described Gerrard last week when he was asked about the prospect of playing alongside his former Liverpool team-mate in attack. After trying out alongside Crouch, Darren Bent and Jermain Defoe, Owen finally has his way.

The inclusion of a specialist holding midfielder means that there are no longer any excuses for the Lampard-Gerrard axis failing to work. They have both been granted the freedom to attack that they are given by their clubs, especially Gerrard - who has, it seems, the remit tonight of the traditional No 10 to roam behind Owen and excuse himself defensive duties. If the two best midfielders in the country cannot work in harmony against Hungary, then they may never do.

Eriksson has never wanted to tell one of either Lampard or Gerrard to curb their attacking instincts, and now he has managed to avoid the question altogether. If, among all the hand-wringing that has accompanied Rooney's injury, there is one small shard of hope then it is the chance to play Lampard and Gerrard with a holding midfielder who allows them to perform their normal jobs.

Judging by his mood yesterday, Eriksson had been waiting for something to take the focus away from Rooney and the latest development in the striker's recovery. The England manager was tetchy when it came to discussing the 20-year-old - "not fair on the rest of the squad," he said - and the news that the fracture, according to United, "involves the joint", which would take longer to heal, will have done nothing to improve his mood.

It was left to Rio Ferdinand, that running mate of Rooney's on and off the pitch, to lighten the gloom a little further.

"When you look around the squad, obviously it would be great to have Wazza [Rooney] because of what a great player he is," he said. "But when I look around the changing room I can see people who are capable of coming in and playing. If I looked around and I didn't see anyone and I thought, 'Flipping hell, without Wazza we've got no chance' then I would be worried. But I'm not."

For the first time yesterday, Eriksson seemed to be talking about a World Cup without Rooney. He has responded by freeing the two most formidable talents at the heart of his midfield to fill the creative void. When Rooney's metatarsal gave way on 29 April, the challenge to Eriksson was to justify his £5m annual salary by compensating for the loss of his best player.

Since then the England coach has picked two uncapped teenagers in his squad - Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon - and now dropped Crouch in favour of Carragher in the holding midfield position. As he faces his greatest challenge, Eriksson cannot, at the very least, be accused of playing a conservative hand.

Making a grab for the holding role: Rivals for the defensive midfield position

Jamie Carragher

Club: Liverpool Age: 28 Caps: 23 Debut: v Hungary, 28/4/99

He has vast experience as a central defender, especially over the last two previous seasons with Liverpool in which his form has been exemplary. Missed out on the 2002 World Cup with injury. As a centre-back has always accepted his England status behind Ferdinand, Terry and Campbell with good grace.

Strengths: Has established himself as one of the best defenders in Europe. Trusted and respected in the England squad and has great experience of playing on the biggest stage. Has filled in as a holding midfielder for England of late when coming on as a substitute.

Weaknesses: It's been a long time since he played the holding midfield role for England from the start of a match.

Michael Carrick

Club: Tottenham Hotspur Age: 24 Caps: 5 Debut: v Mexico 25/5/01

He has established himself as one of the Premiership's leading holding midfielders in his best season to date with Tottenham. He is assured on the ball and strong enough to break up the opposition's attacks. Arsène Wenger came close to signing him and is a confirmed fan.

Strengths: No English midfielder has done more to further his case this season than Carrick. Eriksson brought him into one of his first squads - his fourth game in charge against Mexico in May 2001 - when Carrick was still at West Ham. The Swede certainly rates him.

Weaknesses: Failed to make an impression when given the holding midfield job against Belarus. Gained a reputation for too many sideways passes. He has no Champions' League experience and only five caps.