Southgate faces race to prove fitness to Eriksson

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The Independent Football

Sven Goran Eriksson, the England coach, received his first injury blow ahead of the Euro 2004 finals yesterday as Gareth Southgate suffered a serious knee injury. Wes Brown and Ledley King have been put on standby to replace him in the England squad.

Southgate's injury, which was sustained in training, is likely to keep him out of action for the rest of the Premiership season, leaving him with a race against time to prove his fitness to Eriksson.

The Swede names his provisional 23-man squad for the finals on 17 May, just two days after the Premiership campaign ends, and Southgate was by no means assured of his place.

In the absence of Rio Ferdinand, however, the 33-year-old Middlesbrough defender would offer consistency and experience as England's fourth-choice centre-back behind Sol Campbell, John Terry and Jonathan Woodgate.

Yet Eriksson was also weighing up the promise and versatility of King, who made an impact in his full senior debut in Portugal in February, and Brown, who made a late run into the 2002 World Cup squad when he benefited from Gary Neville's withdrawal to be included as a utility defender.

Southgate, who made his England debut against Portugal in December 1995 and has featured in the squad for the past four major tournaments, is nevertheless still hoping that Eriksson will give him as long as possible to prove his fitness.

"I hope to recover from the injury in time to make myself available for selection for the England squad for the European Championship this summer," he insisted after his injury was confirmed as a strained medial ligament.

Southgate, who missed Saturday's 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers with a jaw injury picked up on international duty, has been fitted with a protective brace, which will remain in place for up to five weeks. His knee will then be assessed and, if all goes well, he will be able to start the process of rehabilitation upon which his hopes for the summer depend.

Boro are making few predictions but the club's senior physiotherapist, Grant Downie, said: "Unfortunately, it's unlikely that Gareth will play for us again this season, although we will be reviewing the situation on an ongoing basis."

While Southgate's misfortune has resulted in the veteran Colin Cooper being recalled to the Boro ranks from his loan spell with their local rivals Sunderland, Eriksson has at least had some positive news over the past week. Campbell and Ashley Cole, as well as David Beckham, will now be given exactly the rest they need ahead of the Euro 2004 finals after the elimination of Arsenal and Real Madrid from the Champions' League.

Beckham will still be involved with Real until the end of Spain's La Liga season on 23 May, but he could still join the rest of the squad for an England training camp in Sardinia the following week.

Chelsea could still be involved in the Champions' League final on 26 May if they can overcome Monaco and they now boast a sizeable England contingent. But however well Frank Lampard and Wayne Bridge played last night at Highbury, Terry remains their only likely England starter this summer, while Joe Cole could also travel to Portugal.

None of them has had recent injury worries and, as an added bonus, Terry must have impressed Eriksson with his displays against Thierry Henry over recent weeks, especially given that England's opening Euro 2004 game will be against France.

So at least the key elements of Eriksson's squad should now be together in time for that trip to Sardinia, followed by a mini-tournament against Japan and Iceland in early June.

The England coach admitted last weekend: "The only worry I have is injuries at the end of the season. I remember the World Cup, with Gary Neville and suddenly Steven Gerrard out. Of course, you are not happy as a manager when that happens."