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Mar 22, 2005

England expects. Again.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho may be facing a UEFA charge for making 'wrong and unfounded statements' but the most incredible falsity you will probably hear this week will come from the England camp when they roll out the old adage that there are 'no easy games in international football'.

What complete nonsense! Armenia, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Faroe Islands, Moldova, San Marino and Malta are all proving to be whipping boys in UEFA's World Cup qualifying section and England's double header at home to Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan should present a mere formality.

No official representative will say that prior to kick-off, of course, despite the fact the opposition are ranked 111 and 117 in the world respectively, over 100 places below England, and keep company with the likes of Gabon and St Kitts and Nevis in FIFA's official rankings.

The pre-match rumblings will almost certainly assert that the opposition pose a threat, but the truth of the matter is that England are expected to win both matches handsomely, taking their points tally up to 16 and virtually sealing qualification for the 2006 World Cup. Anything less will be a complete failure.

To his credit England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson told ESPN Soccernet Press Pass that he would be disappointed not to take six points from the two qualifying matches but couldn't resist pre-fixing his comments with the usual cautionary note of it being a 'very difficult' game.

Eriksson also added: 'On paper people might think it is easy but reality is another thing.' And then came the inevitable: 'You never have easy games in international football.'

I'm not exactly sure how a home match against a Northern Ireland team that draws the majority of its squad from the lower leagues and its relative star players from the Premiership's substitute benches can offer too much of a threat - even if manager Lawrie Sanchez has a history of overcoming the odds as a player at Wimbledon and in management with Wycombe Wanderers.

Given the shambolic friendly performances England fans have had to endure they are due an exhilarating performance at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Azerbaijan may have offered some tough resistance on a windswept, waterlogged pitch in Baku as England struggled to a 1-0 away win but the Azeri sit bottom of group six and are yet to score a goal away from home. And with only 400 professional players to choose from manager Carlos Alberto Torres' options are strictly limited.

In comparison Eriksson can call on household names from some of Europe's most established teams, such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal on Wednesday night at St James' Park.

Yet despite the host of top-class talent available to Eriksson it is the recall of Birmingham City striker Emile Heskey that has sparked the most debate in England.

The much maligned striker's measly tally of five goals in 43 caps has resulted in a heavily criticised international career.

The 27-year-old last represented his country in the opening game of Euro 2004, a match that sticks in the memory for all the wrong reasons.

Sven Goran Eriksson plots tactics with possible successor Steve McClaren.
Sven Goran Eriksson plots tactics with possible successor Steve McClaren.

Leading 1-0 against former European champions France the substitute needlessly conceded the free-kick which led to the first of two goals from Zinedine Zidane in the dying minutes. That blunder appeared the death knell to his England career.

But now as Blues' leading striker (not a particularly difficult feat it has to be said) with eight goals he is back in the England set-up ahead of Manchester United's Alan Smith, who has suffered injuries and a lack of matches, and Aston Villa's Darius Vassell, who Eriksson had previously viewed as an indispensable super-sub.

Heskey's inclusion will offer England an alternative option to that which the diminutive, quick strikers usually offer. The former £11m Liverpool hitman will at least present a potential target for those hopeful hoofs up the pitch we have become so accustomed to watching as England run out of ideas.

And Birmingham manager Steve Bruce thinks his striker is the best man for that particular job. 'He's been playing well for the last three or four months and I keep reiterating that he is England's best centre-forward of his type, Bruce said.

But if England are looking for an out-and-out target man then they should look no further than Southampton's 6'7" striker Peter Crouch, according to team-mate Jamie Redknapp and former England right-back Kenny Sansom.

'You have got to use him correctly but if you want somebody to be a real target man and to come on and cause problems he does that brilliantly,' Redknapp said prior to Eriksson announcing his squad.

When Redknapp made the assertion that Crouch could play for England his suggestion was derided, but since Heskey's recall the former QPR, Portsmouth and Aston Villa striker's exclusion has been unexpectedly questioned.

Southampton manager Harry Redknapp has converted the 24-year-old misfit into one of the form strikers in the Premiership and 10 goals and seven assists in his last 15 games have lifted the relegation threatened club out of the drop zone.

If you are looking for a 'big man, little man' combination then the former England Under 21 is probably a better option than Heskey. But with Eriksson opting to keep faith with Andrew Johnson and Stewart Downing, after provoking widespread criticism for misusing their talents in the 0-0 draw with Holland, Eriksson was unlikely to call in another new face for a competitive international.

Heskey has the experience and in any case it is unlikely that an auxiliary striker would get onto the pitch in what should prove to be an easy six points for England, despite utterances from the England camp to the contrary.

If the hugely disappointing goalless, lacklustre performances against Spain and Holland are repeated in these competitive matches against two of world football's minnows then the 'Eriksson out' campaign starts here.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.