Wanted: a striker in scoring form; a back-up goalkeeper; and, paradoxically, fewer midfield contenders. Having successfully sold the Premier League the idea of a winter break, Sven Goran Eriksson emerges from his own long period of international hiber-nation next week to select England's first squad of Euro-pean Championship year. On Saturday evening, he will name the party for a friendly away to the Euro 2004 hosts Portugal four days later, hoping that Sunday's FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Chelsea does not deplete it too much.
For once, however, there are so many players available that a little natural wastage would solve some tricky selection problems. That applies in particular to the midfield, where a dozen hopefuls were jostling for eight places even before Manchester City's mercurial little Shaun Wright-Phillips advanced his claims with a superlative performance in front of Eriksson at Tottenham in midweek.
Goalkeepers apart, England's head coach tends not to leave out established players who have nothing to prove, preferring to start with them and - to general irritation - introducing vast numbers of substitutes later. As there has been no game since the 3-2 defeat at home to Denmark in November, he will be tempted to stick to that format, the difference being that no fewer than 10 men who missed the game at Old Trafford are available again and raring to go. That means severe pressure on the midfield places.
David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes have long been the chosen four when fit, with Frank Lampard, Phil Neville, Owen Hargreaves, Joe Cole and Kieron Dyer (the only traditional wide player among the lot) in reserve. As Neville may be required at right-back in the absence of brother Gary, there would be room for all that group in a squad of 23, but not for any others unless it was expanded: not the young prospects Jermaine Jenas or Scott Parker; nor the more experienced Danny Murphy; not Wright-Phillips; nor another uncapped player who deserves a chance on the left, Celtic's Alan Thompson. After next week's game, there will be only one other, away to Sweden in March, to look at fringe players before the squad for the finals has to be named in mid-May.
As to who starts in Faro, Lampard should logically be ahead of Butt, who is not now first choice for Manchester United. Gerrard, dynamic as he has been for Liverpool, would be the most suitable holding player, but any desire Beckham might have to replicate his central role with Real Madrid cannot be accom-modated under the diamond system Eriksson favours.
Although all the regular strikers are available, none of them are scoring. Going into yesterday's games, Darius Vassell was the only one of the leading six contenders with a Premiership goal to his name in 2004. Michael Owen's last was in October, Alan Smith's in November and Emile Heskey's in December, while James Beattie has still to break his duck for England and has been only a substitute for Southampton recently. Wayne Rooney, who has started the last four internationals, is having a mixed season for Everton, who have been playing him wide on the right.
Come in Thompson's club-mate Chris Sutton? Probably not, having waited all this time without a call. Eriksson seems more interested in pushing Dyer or Scholes forward in support of a main striker.
The Swede has promised that come the summer England will not defend as badly as they did against Denmark, when Matthew Upson was particularly disappointing. He must now rank behind Sol Campbell, John Terry and Jonathan Woodgate for the central positions, and possibly behind the more canny Gareth Southgate too, but ahead of Anthony Gardner and Wes Brown. Rio Ferdinand, still waiting for the Football Association's protracted response to his appeal against an eight-month suspension, cannot realistically be considered for June.
Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge have the left flank sewn up between them; even though Gary Neville is injured, his brother, Glen Johnson or Hargreaves could all fill in on the right. That leaves only the goalkeepers. David James agrees that moving back to the Premiership will sharpen him up, and Paul Robinson remains second choice despite Leeds' traumas, but Ian Walker's lamentable performance in Leicester's 5-0 defeat by Aston Villa last weekend again raised the question of how he was ever considered international class. If Chris Kirkland's broken finger has not healed, his Merseyside rival Nigel Martyn would deserve a recall after two years.
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