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Saturday, Oct. 8, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Pressure on Eriksson to lock up World Cup berth for England


LONDON -- There are two ways of looking at the likely inclusion of Peter Crouch in the England team to face Austria in a crucial World Cup qualifying tie on Saturday.

Christopher Davies

The first is that it is a positive step that England has an alternative to Wayne Rooney, who is suspended for this game.

The second is that it shows how shallow the alternatives are when a 201-cm beanpole is the best partner available for Michael Owen. If Crouch is the answer, many wonder what the question is.

Crouch has yet to score a goal for Liverpool since his £7 million summer move from Southampton, where he scored 16 times despite their relegation.

Described as a head on legs by one critic, Crouch is aware of the skeptics who believe in his case size certainly does matter.

"I think the more I've played, the more people are taking me seriously," he said unconvincingly. "Now that there's recognition that I'm starting to play for England and that I'm at a great club like Liverpool, hopefully people can see that I can play as well. I've got every confidence that I can make the grade at this level, and hopefully I can show that now."

England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson is reluctant to use another smaller striker like Jermain Defoe alongside Owen, preferring a little and large combination, though the days of continental defenses being troubled by a burly English striker are long gone.

However, Crouch could be a strategic substitute should England reach the finals next summer even if he is perceived as a stone-age center-forward, a relic of the long-ball game that makes purists come out in a cold sweat.

"It's a massive opportunity," said Crouch, 24, who is at his seventh club in a nomadic career. "If you can impress in these games, you've got a real good chance of being involved in the World Cup, and I think that's what we're all here to do."

Crouch's confidence is unaffected by his by his lack of goals since moving to Anfield and, in fairness, his cause is not helped by Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez's frequent use of him as a lone striker.

"When you're on your own up front, sometimes it limits your chances a little bit to score goals," he said. "But I think playing with someone of Michael's caliber can only help my game and hopefully I can help his as well."

Wins against Austria and then at home to Poland next Wednesday would ensure that England qualifies as Group Six winners. If England beats Austria on Saturday and the Czech Republic loses in Group One to Holland, then England would qualify as one of Europe's two best runners-up.

Most in England believe it will complete the job of qualifying one way or the other, but should the worse case scenario happen and England fail in the playoffs, Eriksson would find it difficult to remain in charge.

There are those who would like to see him sacked even if England reaches Germany, claiming he is tactically naive and uninspiring.

England will revert to 4-4-2 against Austria after the ill-fated use of 4-5-1 in the 1-0 defeat by Northern Ireland. Eriksson's biggest decision is which two central defenders to play from John Terry (Chelsea), Sol Campbell (Arsenal) and Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United).

On form Ferdinand should be the odd man out and public opinion is behind such a move though Eriksson, to his credit, is not a man to bow to such pressure.

The problem England and the Football Association have is that rather like with Rooney, the list of realistic alternatives to Eriksson is small going on nonexistent if his successor is to be English.

The usual suspects are trotted out after England draws or loses a game and "Sven Must Go" headlines are resurrected.

There is Eriksson's assistant, Steve McClaren of Middlesbrough, who has said he is committed to the five-year contract his club chairman, Steve Gibson, offered.

Sam Allardyce has done a wonderful job at over-achieving Bolton, but keeping his multinational squad competitive in the Premiership is very different to managing on the world stage.

Allardyce's Bolton is more strength than silky skill, while its manager is pragmatic and still breathes a sigh of relief when Premiership survival is secured for another season.

Ditto Alan Curbishley of Charlton and Manchester City's Stuart Pearce, the latter admitting he is too inexperienced to step up to international level yet.

Curbishley's achievement in making Charlton a role model for smaller clubs has rightly been recognized, but it is one thing dealing with bargain basement players and making them into stars and another dealing with the Beckhams and Rooneys of this world.

Pearce, nicknamed Psycho as a player, has the passion and the bulldog spirit, the epitome of English commitment. He is showing promise at Manchester City but is still a managerial rookie, has yet to prove himself as a master tactician and is three or four years short of the necessary experience to move up a level.

However, if England fails to see off Austria and Poland and is forced into the lottery of the playoffs, the Eriksson knives that have already been sharpened would be put into action.

Yet he remains the best man to lead England if it reaches the World Cup finals. However, whatever England's fate in Germany, it is difficult to see the Swede staying on after that.

We will see how good the English candidates are then.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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