World Cup: Beckham keeps powder dry

Ian Ridley studies the contradictions as the national coach finalises his strategy; Hoddle adds spice boy to the mind games as Scholes and Anderton enter the reckoning for England
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The Independent Online
THE mood was soon established, the ambition quickly apparent. Although they were mostly entertaining, a series of draws in the World Cup's opening round of matches - hapless Scotland among the own-goal exceptions - illustrated that the important issue is not to lose the first game when to do so means an uphill struggle against swift elimination.

It is why England may not be as expansive as may be anticipated in their first game of the finals against Tunisia in Marseilles tomorrow afternoon. Attempting to read the signs around the training ground at La Baule on the Brittany coast - yesterday lashed by gales and rain - suggests indeed that Glenn Hoddle may be unwilling to parade his full complement of creative talent too soon.

It is believed that in training towards the end of the week, Hoddle was fielding a formation that saw Darren Anderton at right wing-back, David Batty in central midfield and David Beckham excluded. Reality or bluff? After the Paul Gascoigne affair, nothing would surprise any more.

Hoddle almost seems to take a pleasure in being perverse and secretive these days. There have been the bogus injury scares and last week the private friendly against Caen. Hoddle wanted, he said, a game not influenced by a crowd but it still did not explain why the media were excluded.

And though, for most of us, the build-up to England's belated entry to the tournament has dragged, Hoddle now suggests that "suddenly it's on you before you know it". This on top of his response to a question about whether he is the type of manager who would tell his players that they can win the World Cup or that they will win it. "That's a private matter," he replied.

None of this will matter a jot if England are quickly out of the traps in Marseilles. But if they do not impress against what is likely to be the weakest opposition in Group G, Hoddle can expect considerable criticism that his closed campaign is reflected in a crabby, cautious approach, the more so if Beckham is omitted. For finally, this is the real deal and the time for him to be judged.

Now that Gazza is gone, Hoddle has only the task of picking the right 11 from 22 to occupy him. And it is probably because there is little left to conceal that his cuteness continues. "I have known for a while which 11 will start," Hoddle insists, deflecting criticism about muddled thinking.

In truth there are probably only two real issues left, significant though they may be; how the midfield might now be assembled and whether Michael Owen is yet ready to replace Teddy Sheringham in the starting line-up, as indicated in Caen.

"Gazza was earmarked for that central role but different players give you different options," says Hoddle. "We have got plenty of midfield choices - Beckham, Scholes, Anderton, McManaman, Merson... the names just roll off the tongue.

"But we can't go into the tournament with too many preconceived ideas. We will see how it goes. You have to get the first win behind you, ideally in the first game."

Muddled thinking or simply open-mindedness? Contradictory to his statement of knowing the 11? We will know tomorrow.

It may well be, in fact, that Hoddle has two teams in mind; one to play qualifying football of his preferred contain-and-counter variety and another to pick up the baton for the knock-out stages when more attacking football is needed. Such a strategy might border on complacency, however.

Initially, with risk not required, one can see Hoddle's old favourite Batty starting alongside Paul Ince in midfield; it works for Brazil, after all, to have two holding players there, in Dunga and Cesar Sampaio, though they play with two central defenders rather than three, with Cafu and Roberto Carlos virtual wing-backs.

Then Paul Scholes is likely to be given the Gascoigne position, having adapted quickly to the international game. "Nothing phases Paul Scholes. I am sure he will play a part in this World Cup and I hope it will be a big part," says Hoddle. The doubt, though, must be over Scholes's experience. He has seven caps; most players will tell you that it takes at least 15 to feel fully comfortable in the national team.

So we come to Beckham. If Graeme Le Saux's calf injury is still not healed, Anderton may take the left flank, meaning that the Manchester United player could take his customary position on the right. Certainly it is there, rather than centrally, that Hoddle appears to see him operating.

When pressed on the subject, the coach asked in turn how many times Beckham had played there for United last season. The player himself says only once. Whatever and wherever, it seems certain that Beckham - who has hitherto played all competitive matches under Hoddle - will emerge at some stage; after all, David Platt was held back at the beginning of Italia 90.

Beckham himself is ready. He watched the 1990 World Cup as a 15-year- old with his mum and dad at home in Essex, he says, marvelling at Gazza. "I'd love to make the same sort of impact that he did then," says Beckham. He might even cry, he added. "I'm very emotional." Following the Scots in their kilts, perhaps he might even lead England out in sarongs.

Had Beckham so far scored for England, his selection would, one suspects, be already automatic and he is aware that it is something he must add to his international game. Indeed, he has not been particularly on form of late. It may be that to build confidence he needs to give the easy ball a few times first rather than misplace ambitious ones; needs to score a simple goal rather than a spectacular one though he describes himself as "not a tap-in player".

Owen will take them from all angles but by the same token of keeping some powder dry - the Brazilians, too, used Denilson only as a substitute - one suspects that he will be biding his time on the bench tomorrow. The suspicion also is that it will be only a matter of time, though.

For all the red-herring shenanigans of recent weeks, Sheringham has earned his shot at partnering Shearer at the outset and his nous and cleverness is the primary requirement. Owen's pace and potential will doubtless find their moment.

It should not mean that England are over-cautious but it will mean that they are careful. As ever, with an England coach, his statement, his methods and his selection will be judged on one simple basis - whether the game is won or not.

And it should be. Tunisia will clearly be no pushovers but all pedigree suggests that it is a match England should win, whether all guns are blazing or not. Even the Tunisians themselves were not carried away by a recent 4-0 win over woeful Wales. It is said that a 1-0 defeat in Vienna by Austria, who have looked among the poorer teams so far, was more indicative of their merits.

Given that, one can only hope that England are not restricted by any limiting of their horizons tomorrow. A draw may not indeed be the end of the World Cup but if they are to establish momentum, to warn the tournament that they can be serious players, a lyrical rather than overly pragmatic start would do everyone good. England expects, and the world awaits.

England (possible): Seaman; Southgate, Adams, Campbell; Anderton, Batty, Ince, Scholes, Le Saux, Shearer, Sheringham.