Venables' midfield minefield

Football
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The Independent Online
BEFORE the days of weekend cancellations, an England manager with an impending international fixture could only stand by on Saturdays and see his plans upended by injuries. Terry Venables had that experience yesterday afternoon as Robert Lee and David Platt both pulled out of the squad for Tuesday's game against Portugal, with Teddy Sheringham going on the doubtful list.

Venables now faces a midfield crisis. Liverpool's Jamie Redknapp was ruled out on Friday with a muscle strain, so he must secure at least one high-class replacement, and might even consider outcasts such as Matthew Le Tissier or Paul Ince.

The biggest loss is Lee. The Newcastle midfielder, a success against Switzerland last month and November's player of the month, picked up a thigh injury in the 1-0 defeat at Chelsea, only the second this season for the Premiership leaders.

"He slipped on the grass and has pulled a muscle," his manager, Kevin Keegan, said. "He's had the problem for a while and has just aggravated it. The game against Portugal is only a friendly and under the rules I could pull him out, but I've told him to go and report. He certainly won't play, though."

Platt was ruled out with a hamstring even though he completed the full 90 minutes of the goalless draw against Southampton. The Arsenal manager, Bruce Rioch, said afterwards that he was not sure how long the England captain would be out for.

Sheringham, who scored the only goal for Spurs against QPR yesterday, is in doubt because of a back condition. Sheringham scored after only three minutes and lasted the entire game, but his manager, Gerry Francis, said: "He has been put in traction straight after the final whistle and we'll have to see how he is with the England doctors. It is a problem he has had for a little while. It is something where a disc in the back is put slightly out of place and it affects the hamstring."

Outside the physio's room, Venables' problems are of a more long- term nature. Can he seriously believe that Paul Gascoigne's flawed temperament will not damage the optimism that is gradually being forged in the England set-up? And how can he find room for a fit Platt?

Gascoigne's ludicrously impetuous tackle from behind while playing for Rangers in their Champions' League match against Borussia Dortmund last Wednesday - followed by his pursuit of the referee to berate him in the language Gazza knows best - again had the manager, Walter Smith, gritting his teeth with frustration at the Englishman's subsequent dismissal and Venables wondering what more he can do to harness England's most exciting talent.

More than anyone, Venables has come close to coaxing the best out of Gascoigne, but even he is concerned. "When his adrenalin is up he flies too high. He wants to win almost too much. If he could put his football right at the front of his brain it would be OK, but once he starts wanting to prove himself in other ways he has too many things to think about.

"He does that for a while then something gets to him and he goes wandering off somewhere else. He wants to please, he wants to win. We've seen what he's capable of doing in the last couple of months but the smallest things upset him."

Venables has no intention of omitting Gascoigne from this week's team, nor reconsidering his international future. Indeed his more pressing dilemma is that of Platt's situation. Although Platt has so often proved to be England's goalscoring deliverer from midfield, his recent absence has made it difficult to see where he could be placed in the present tactical pattern. Last week, even before his injury, Venables had given the guarded impression that there would be no room for him against Portugal anyway.

Bearing in mind the fact that Venables himself has said that the players now in possession will be hard to dislodge, it seems that his work over the next few months will be more concerned with covering for possible injuries with versatile players (the European squad is limited to 20 players and a spare goalkeeper) and improving the midfield balance. The campaign to replace Alan Shearer or Sheringham up front with Les Ferdinand is unlikely to succeed - though in the light of Sheringham's unlikely absence the calls for Ferdinand's inclusion are likely to be heard, if only temporarily. And Steve Stone can hardly be removed from a wide midfield-attacking role he plays so well.

On the left of midfield, with Darren Anderton still unfit, temporarily better support may come by including Graeme Le Saux who, in spite of recent uncharacteristic evidence to the contrary, is one of the "intelligent" players Venables insists are essential to the squad. He pays the same compliment to Aston Villa's Gareth Southgate who, given yesterday's injuries, will almost certainly his first England start against a Portuguese side that in theory should provide the toughest test since Venables took over.

The theory wavers slightly for the same reason that it makes no sense to go overboard in praise of any England victory in friendly matches. There is reason to believe that most of England's opponents since March 1994 would have provided sterner tests had the games been in competition. Portugal are one of the most improved teams in Europe, which is not to say that they will come to Wembley brimming with enthusiasm. It is more likely that they will not want to risk their new reputation by taking the game to England too carelessly.

Venables said: "Portugal are going to be major contenders at the European Championship." He anticipates that they will play a Christmas tree formation and be as dangerous as they were against Ireland, who he says "couldn't get the ball". That was in large measure because of the control of Rui Costa and the overall leadership of Paulo Sousa. If Portugal do come with a positive attitude, England's now almost settled team are about to find out what next summer could bring.

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