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England ready for experiments galore

© Reuters 2002

By Trevor Huggins

LONDON, Feb 12 (Reuters) - England face the Netherlands in a pre-World Cup friendly on Wednesday with Sven Goran Eriksson fielding a side that is probably a lot more experimental than he would originally have liked.

Their clash at the Amsterdam Arena, a return fixture after the Dutch beat England 2-0 at White Hart Lane last August, was always going to be the last major bunfight for places in Eriksson's squad of 23 for the finals in South Korea and Japan.

By contrast, next month's run-out against Italy at Elland Road will almost certainly feature a team that is all but ready to start the tournament, with few remaining places up for grabs and none for the rank outsiders.

But even Eriksson can hardly have reckoned on the rash of injuries and suspensions which have been inflicted on England's hopefuls in recent weeks - and which cannot have helped the Swede in his final preparations.

The Monday evening defection of Michael Owen, albeit a surefire certainty to play every game for which he is fit at the World Cup finals, has been typical of Eriksson's luck on the injury front recently.

With Nick Barmby already unavailable, the loss of Darren Anderton and Trevor Sinclair earlier on Monday left him with no regular left-sided midfielder. Sinclair's West Ham United team mate Joe Cole is now likely to start, even though he plays in central midfield at club level.

Elsewhere in the middle, suspension has prevented Eriksson from having a look at Jamie Carragher and Lee Bowyer, while John Terry, Danny Mills and Jonathan Woodgate are all unavailable at the back.

Skipper David Beckham should recover from an ankle knock, though a spot of hamstring trouble is never a good sign from Steven Gerrard, who may yet be ruled out of the game against the Dutch.

As Beckham himself said on Monday: "It would be silly to take risks." An injury to Ashley Cole means the leftback role will probably be filled initially by England under-21 defender Wayne Bridge of Southampton, while in central defence Sol Campbell may have a spell alongside his former understudy at Tottenham Hotspur, the uncapped Ledley King, as well as his usual partner Rio Ferdinand.

Goalkeeper David James, whose early season was wrecked by a knee injury sustained just two minutes after coming on as a second-half substitute for England against the Dutch in August, will get the nod for at least the first half. With David Seaman still not back from a shoulder injury sustained last September, the West Ham keeper knows he has a rare chance to play himself into the starting line-up, let alone the squad, at the World Cup if the Arsenal keeper does not recover.

Up front, suspension has also done for Alan Smith but handed a chance to two uncapped strikers - the impressive Michael Ricketts of Bolton Wanderers and Villa's under-21 hitman Darius Vassell.

Kevin Phillips gets almost certainly his last chance to claim a World Cup place after shooting blanks against Eriksson's native Sweden, while Emile Heskey will be seeking a new partner in place of the injured Owen. Three other forwards - Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham - have not been picked for the Dutch clash, simply to allow Eriksson to experiment. Of that trio, Fowler and Sheringham are the most likely to join Owen and Heskey in what will probably be five berths for strikers in the final 23.

Inevitably, it puts even more pressure on the target men chosen to play on Wednesday. A goal from either Ricketts, Vassell or Phillips would probably earn them a stay of execution, and an appearance against the Italians at Elland Road.

As in the other departments, Wednesday night's strikers also know the formidable Leeds contingent will be available again next month and the temptation for Eriksson could be strong to give the likes of Smith, and possibly Woodgate, a chance in their own stadium.

But if the match in Amsterdam is all about the future for England, it's all about the past for the Dutch, and their missed chance to qualify for the finals.

Beaten to the playoffs by Mick McCarthy's Ireland, as runners-up in a group won by Portugal, the Dutch are playing on Wednesday for wounded pride, albeit with an eye to the Euro 2004 qualifiers which start later this year.

Two of the best strikers in the English premier league this season, Manchester United's record-breaking Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Chelsea's Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, will have James' goal in their sights, and the newcomers to the England rearguard can expect a torrid time. Tough though it will be, the chance is also there to show they deserved a place at the World Cup finals.

Reports provided by

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