The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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England aim to wrap things up
- With six first-choice players missing, Eriksson’s boys are desperate not to slip up

Redworth (England): England head into Wednesday’s Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia looking not just for victory, but an end to a circle of violence and racist abuse.

On the pitch, the challenge facing England in Middlesbrough is to follow up their rousing 2-0 win over Turkey two months ago in Sunderland without suspended skipper David Beckham.

England answered their critics with their best performance since the World Cup finals at the Stadium of Light, inspired by their electrifying 17-year-old striker Wayne Rooney.

However, Turkey have wrested back top slot in Group Seven with Saturday’s 1-0 victory in Slovakia and they are unlikely to relinquish it at home to Macedonia on Wednesday.

With 12 points to England’s 10, the Turks are hoping for another England slip-up in a laboured qualifying campaign for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side.

Last October’s scrappy 2-1 victory in a quagmire in Bratislava was followed by an embarrassing 2-2 draw at home to Macedonia and only a 2-0 win in Liechtenstein.

England can ill-afford another draw, as it would almost certainly mean having to beat Turkey in October’s final match to qualify automatically — precisely what Eriksson has always wanted to avoid.

The omens for Wednesday so far have been mixed, with Beckham’s enforced vacation in the United States a major blow.

England have come to rely on the midfielder’s steely determination, pinpoint passing and an ability to score in all four previous qualifiers.

Despite the unwanted spotlight of his future at Manchester United, amid talks with Spanish and Italian clubs, his England teammates would clearly rather have Beckham on Teesside than Stateside.

Worse still, he is one of six first-choice absentees — with defenders Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Gary Neville, plus midfielders Nicky Butt and Kieron Dyer all injured.

The likely replacements — Gareth Southgate, Matthew Upson, Danny Mills, Frank Lampard and Phil Neville — are, aside from Southgate, a notch or two below in quality.

The good news remains Rooney, who should partner Michael Owen when England’s stand-in captain collects his 50th cap, plus the sparkling form of midfielder Steven Gerrard.

Slovakia, who stayed third on six points after Saturday’s defeat, only have pride to play for, according to their coach.

“We are now not going to play to qualify,” said Ladislav Jurkemik, whose team had led England 1-0 in Bratislava. “We are going to represent Slovakia with honour.”

However, a surprise victory — perhaps secured by Middlesbrough striker Szilard Nemeth — would throw open the race for a runners-up slot in the play-offs.

Whatever the outcome, matters on the pitch will not be the sole focus of interest — as both sets of fans are on trial.

In Bratislava, Slovakia fans booed England’s black players, prompting Uefa to force them to play their home game against Liechtenstein behind closed doors, while some England supporters charged the barriers on the terraces.

Six months later, it was England who feared a closed-door punishment at the Riverside after racist chants and two pitch invasions marred the win over Turkey.

With Sunderland police also making 95 arrests, Uefa have made it clear that England’s place at Euro 2004 — should they qualify — could be in jeopardy. With Turkey hoping to extend their lead and Uefa primed to take punitive action, England players and fans both need to put on a convincing performance.


England: David James; Danny Mills, Gareth Southgate, Matthew Upson, Ashley Cole; Steven Gerrard, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard; Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen.

Slovakia: Mirosl av Konig, Martin Petras, Marian Zeman, Vladimir Labant, Michal Hanek, Miroslav Karhan, Igor Demo, Rastislav Michalik, Vladimir Janocko, Robert Vittek, Szilard Nemeth.

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