LONDON: England are hoping the kind of injury crisis which rocked their 2002 World Cup campaign will remain a distant memory as they prepare for Euro 2004.
Injuries like those that ruled out midfielder Steven Gerrard as well as defender Gary Neville and handicapped the performances of skipper David Beckham and striker Michael Owen in South Korea and Japan have been conspicuously absent.
Only squad players Jonathan Woodgate and Gareth Southgate face a race against time to prove their fitness for a place in central defence after thigh and knee injuries respectively.
The one certain absentee from Sven Goran-Eriksson’s first-choice line-up is Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand, who is serving an eight-month ban for missing a drugs test.
Chelsea’s John Terry is the man most likely to replace Ferdinand alongside Arsenal’s Sol Campbell while Matthew Upson and Ledley King are alternatives should Woodgate and Southgate fail to recover in time.
Crossing fingers and touching wood ahead of the June 12 tournament start, Eriksson should have the core of a team that has changed relatively little during qualifying.
David James will be between the posts with Ashley Cole on the left flank, Campbell and Terry in the middle and Neville on the right.
The Swede’s first-choices in a diamond-shaped midfield have been Beckham on the right, Paul Scholes in the advanced position, Nicky Butt in the holding role and Gerrard towards the left.
However, there is plenty of room for flexibility since Gerrard would be more comfortable in his Liverpool club role in central midfield while Frank Lampard has made a strong case for replacing Paul Scholes.
Scholes, whose slide-rule short passes will probably keep him in the starting XI, has not scored for his country in nearly three years despite hitting 20 goals for Manchester United last season.
Consolation for Lampard could be a place on the problem left side if Butt, who has not had a happy season at United, fails to deliver and finds Gerrard shunted back into his place.
England’s attack is the preserve of Merseyside.
Liverpool’s Owen will almost certainly be partnered by Everton teenager Wayne Rooney with Owen’s club mate Emile Heskey on the bench.
A fourth slot is up for grabs and a priceless breakthrough goal against World Cup semi-finalists Turkey in qualifying has probably won it for Aston Villa’s Darius Vassell. – Reuters