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May 9, 2006

Old dog learns new trick

England's famously cautious manager Sven-Goran Eriksson appears to have unearthed a previously unseen dangerous streak - at least as far as football is concerned - now that he has been unburdened with facing any repercussions of his actions.

ENGLAND SQUAD
Goalkeepers:
Robinson (Tottenham)
James (Man City)
Green (Norwich),

Defenders:
G Neville (Man United)
R Ferdinand (Man United)
Terry (Chelsea)
A Cole (Arsenal)
Campbell (Arsenal)
Carragher (Liverpool)
Bridge (Chelsea)

Midfielders:
Beckham (Real Madrid)
Carrick (Tottenham)
Lampard (Chelsea)
Gerrard (Liverpool)
Hargreaves (Bayern Munich)
Jenas (Tottenham), Downing (Middlesbrough)
J Cole (Chelsea)
Lennon (Tottenham)

Strikers:
Rooney (Man United)
Owen (Newcastle)
Crouch (Liverpool)
Walcott (Arsenal)

The Swede will quit his post with England after their elimination, or triumph, at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and chose to make his last, and most important, squad selection the boldest of his five-and-a-half-year tenure.

At England's stage-managed press conference on Monday Eriksson laughed and joked as his 23 man preliminary World Cup squad was unveiled, which contained some startling omissions and inclusions that, by Eriksson's own admission, defied logic.

With all attention and conjecture focused intensely on his injury-hit striking line-up Eriksson foiled all sweepstakes on the permutations of his possible selection by naming uncapped 17-year-old striker Theo Walcott as one of only four forwards.

Who? You know, the former Southampton striker that has not played a single game for his new club Arsenal since his £12million move in the January transfer window.

And while Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger's track record of identifying talented youngsters is largely unrivalled, and Walcott's potential is unquestioned, quite why that is enough to win a place on the plane to Germany is mystifying.

Walcott's entire league career only amounts to 1,334 minutes and four goals. It would be fair to surmise that no other country taking part in Germany 2006 will be taking a player who has not played a solitary game for his club this season.

The inclusion of Walcott, who will become England's youngest-ever player if he takes part in any of the three pre-tournament warm-up matches, is all the more baffling given that Eriksson has only named a striking quartet, rather than the expected quintet, and two of those who have made the final cut are currently injured.

Talismanic 20-year-old Wayne Rooney is nursing a broken metatarsal and, at an optimistic estimate, will only return for the quarter-final stages of the World Cup if he enjoys an amazingly rapid recovery. The Manchester United striker took 14 weeks to return from his previous metatarsal injury. Eriksson hopes the oxygen tent Rooney now sleeps in can reduce that time by half.

Meanwhile, Michael Owen, Eriksson's most experience and prolific striker, is himself recovering from a metatarsal injury and was not fit enough to take his place in the Newcastle United team that beat Chelsea 1-0 at the weekend.

It is a universally accepted truth that Owen is not a player who can quickly return to match sharpness after an injury lay-off and it takes five to six weeks for the 26-year-old to regain any semblance of his previous quality.

Owen's old coach at Liverpool, Phil Thompson, has already voiced concerns that his former charge will be off the pace until the knockout stages of the Finals - despite having matches against Belarus, Hungary and Jamaica to aid the ex-Real Madrid forward in his fitness race.

In a worst case scenario England could be left with Liverpool's 6'7" striker Peter Crouch and Walcott as their only fit strikers. The pair total only five caps between them and all belong to Crouch. Walcott has only represented England at U19 level and Crouch has only played in one competitive international.

Eriksson's explanation for this uncharacteristic behaviour?

'Sometimes things work out without being logic,' the Swede chuckled - although I am beginning to suspect he is in fact an impostor.

It is a radical change for Eriksson who has traditionally erred on the side of caution and opted for experience over raw talent.

It may have been fathomable, if somewhat unexpected, if the England manager had turned to 31-year-old Robbie Fowler, whose form has just won him a one-year contract with Liverpool, or 40-year-old West Ham United striker Teddy Sheringham whom the role Rooney occupies for England is named after - the Sheringham role.

Both would have been a major surprise but neither as much as the inclusion of untested and unproven Walcott.

Charlton Athletic striker Darren Bent must be wondering what else he could have done to win a place in the final squad. The 22-year-old is the leading English scorer in the Premiership despite playing for a club in free-fall. And to be ousted by Walcott clearly hurts:

'I am obviously really disappointed,' Bent said in a statement. 'I wasn't taking anything for granted and knew that it was by no means certain that I would be included, but being the leading English goalscorer in the Premiership I was very hopeful of being included.'

The disillusioned striker didn't even make the stand-by list. Tottenham's Jermain Defoe and Andy Johnson, who plays for Crystal Palace in the Championship, take those places.

Eriksson's new found taste for the unknown also extends to the midfield where many fans will be pleased to see Middlesbrough sensation Stewart Downing (one cap) as cover for the left-wing when he returns from Wednesday's UEFA Cup final and Tottenham's Aaron Lennon (uncapped) as cover for the right. The duo join all the usual suspects in midfield, but at the expense of Shaun Wright-Phillip's, whose ill advised move from Manchester City to Chelsea's bench has proven very costly.

At the back their is an abundance of experience and despite the absence of injured Tottenham centre-back Ledley King, Eriksson's selection can boast over 300 caps between them.

Overall Eriksson has opted for a very talented an attacking squad and his new found care-free selection policy has the nation focused, even if only briefly, on something other than Rooney's injury.

It remains to be seen if the England manager's new found taste for risk taking will transfer itself to the pitch when needed - if his team need to chase a game for instance.

Thus far his tenure has been marked with caution, but could this late change in attitude be just what England need at the Finals?


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