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Monday, June 26, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Hard to understand Eriksson's logic for not using Walcott


MUNICH -- To the surprise of no one except Sven-Goran Eriksson, England have a striker crisis (they also have a midfield crisis but more of that later).

Christopher Davies

It was such an obvious scenario that it is staggering the Swede had such blinkered vision when naming his World Cup squad. We all told you Sven and the most positive aspect of you taking no notice is that in your final week(s) as England coach you were you own man. Sadly.

England traveled to Germany 2006 with a strike force that was already creaking at the seams, the smallest (everyone else has five rather than four strikers), least fit and most suspect collection of front men of any finalist.

First choices Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney were clearly not match fit after so long on the sidelines, nor were they likely to be even if England progressed.

Peter Crouch, promoted to a starter, was to be an alternative substitute, his height providing a different tactic and Theo Walcott was the unknown factor -- still unknown as he has yet to make an appearance.

And then there were three.

Owen will not only miss the remainder of the World Cup, he is unlikely to play again this year after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee in the first minute of the 2-2 draw against Sweden. The Newcastle striker will effectively miss at least a year's football and, as a player who relies on speed and sharpness, one wonders whether he will ever be as effective again.

Rooney played an hour against the Swedes, his influence obvious and his return from injury something of a surprise.

When the Manchester United player was substituted it left Crouch on his own up front as England was fortunate to get the draw that set up a second-round meeting with Ecuador on Sunday.

So why no Walcott?

What is the point of having a player in a crisis position if he is constantly kept under wraps?

How secret a weapon does Eriksson want the 17-year-old to be?

Eriksson said: "Walcott is ready. It would have been good to put him on against Sweden but so many things happened and I wanted to be absolutely sure to win the group. That was our big target.

"Those weeks he has been with us he has been getting better and better, more and more confident. He talks more, he wants the ball more. He has scored fantastic goals in training."

As Eriksson's next big target is the quarterfinals, presumably it means Walcott will once again be a non-playing substitute against Ecuador?

Eriksson added: "I think we played better than the other two games."

That is hardly a compliment considering how mediocre England was against Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago.

"Even if we didn't win the game, I think we took a step forward -- if you take away the set-pieces and Michael Owen, of course. That's a negative."

There isn't much else to take away.

Sweden caused England, whose defenders face such situations every week in the Premiership, serious problems from set-pieces in the second half. They scored twice, hit the woodwork twice and had one cleared off the line from corners and free-kicks.

The doomsday scenario now is for Crouch or Rooney to be injured or sent off. Already down to the bare bones in attack, England would then be down to soft tissues.

Apart from another fine display by Joe Cole, the only real positive against Sweden was the performance of Owen Hargreaves, starting his first England game for more then two years.

Hargreaves played in place of Steven Gerrard, who was on the bench because he was one caution from a ban, but came on for Wayne Rooney and scored.

The English media does not like Hargreaves, so any praise is begrudging as it is admitting it was wrong.

Eriksson, in a rare statement with which few would disagree, said: "He showed he is a great player. I thought he was brilliant out there. He was full of energy until the last minute. He plays in that position for Bayern Munich week-in and week-out."

Hargreaves must play against Ecuador and Frank Lampard should be left out.

The Bayern player should again be given the anchor-man role in midfield, with Gerrard doing what he does best, thrusting forward from central midfield. Gerrard and Lampard together does not work because neither has the discipline to "hold" when the other attacks.

It would be the bravest decision Eriksson has made as England coach -- dropping the darling of the fans and media for a player few think should even be in the squad. There are no second chances in the knockout stage -- go earn your £5 million a year salary, Sven, and don't worry about popularity, if indeed you ever have.

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


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