| David Beckham trains with teammates Gary Neville (right ) and Frank Lampard at the Rheinpark Stadium in Liechtenstein Thursday. (Reuters)
Settling with his players into their Alpine base on Thursday, Sven-Goran Eriksson knows that if England slip up against Liechtenstein’s modest blend of part-timers and small-time pros on Saturday, screaming headlines will signal for whom the cow-bells toll.
So the sound of the talismanic Steven Gerrard voicing his determination will have been music to Eriksson’s ears. “I am unbeaten as an England player,” said Gerrard.
Missing in the friendly debacle with Australia, the last of Gerrard’s 13 caps came in the frustrating 2-2 draw with Macedonia at Southampton. “We underestimated them and expected to win the game comfortably,” said the Liverpool midfielder, sitting in a sports hall next to England’s hotel.
“We were all pushing on against Macedonia, looking for goals. We should have been more disciplined. I fell for that as well. We are coming up against some quality opposition who will make you pay if everyone goes forward.”
Liechtenstein are hardly “quality opposition” but Gerrard was keen to voice his respect.
The mistake against Macedonia was in leaving the defence exposed. Gerrard will anchor more consistently this time, dovetailing better with his usual central-midfield partner.
“I leave most of the attacking play to Paul Scholes while I screen the back-four. We’ve got a decent understanding so if I go forward he will sit in. The most important thing is that the midfielders get an understanding that not everyone can go forward and we still need to help the back-four out.”
Gerrard exudes commitment whether facing the sporting representatives of a tiny principality like Liechtenstein or one of the principal sides of Europe like Manchester United, whom he terrorised in Liverpool’s Worthington Cup victory.
Yet, cutting a distracted figure, Gerrard did suffer a dip earlier in the season, even receiving a volley of criticism from his club manager Gerard Houllier, but has fully hit his stride in recent weeks as United found to their cost in Cardiff.
“My season has been hot and cold — definitely. I started the season well for Liverpool, then I had a couple of months when I was very poor for Liverpool and wasn’t happy with my international performances. I wasn’t working hard enough. I needed to work hard in training to get my passing right.”
At Anfield last Sunday, Gerrard was terrific against Leeds United, scoring, breaking from end to end and even putting in one of the clearances of the season, a hooked effort executed off-balance in front of a delighted Kop.
“I remember looking up, seeing the ball above my head and thinking I have got to get this ball out in case they score,” he recalled.
Such a successful, pain-free twisting motion brought further confirmation that the surgeons repaired his troubled pelvic region well last summer.
“I knew as soon as I had the surgery that my groin was right,” said a player who has started 44 games for his club this season.
Gerrard’s ability to shield England’s defence from Liechtenstein’s rare excursions has been made more important with the loss of Sol Campbell, whose sensitive Achilles prevented him travelling. The Arsenal centre-half will instead join up with the squad on Sunday in advance of Wednesday’ Stadium of Light tie with Turkey.
Filling in for Campbell alongside Rio Ferdinand in training on Thursday was first Gareth Southgate and then Jonathan Woodgate.
England will surely win Saturday, probably by three goals, but Turkey pose the stiffest of tests.
Yet the England camp is not short of self-belief. The optimism of the team’s followers, who on Thursday swamped the FA website with an 83 percent backing that England would take six points off Liechtenstein and Turkey, was reflected in the words of Gary Neville, never a man backward in coming forward to promote the Three Lions’ cause.
While arguing that the Euro ’96 vintage of Alan Shearer, Teddy Sheringham and Paul Gascoigne was “the best England team I have ever played in”, the Manchester United right-back enthused about the current generation.
“This squad, in terms of youth and talent is the best in terms of potential in my times,” said Neville. “I don’t see too many other teams in Europe or the world possessing players with the amount of speed, power, strength, ability and youth that England have. Sol Campbell, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole — there are no better defenders in Europe their position.
“Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Kieron Dyer, Nicky Butt and Danny Murphy in midfield! Michael Owen — European Footballer of the Year (for 2001) — Emile Heskey plus the younger players, Francis Jeffers, Wayne Rooney and Darius Vassell in attack.
“Why can’t this squad not achieve something in the next four years' You talk between yourselves about the adulation the 1966 team get and the French team get for winning the World Cup and the European Championships — that cements your place in history as a team.”
Cementing six points would be a useful building block in constructing that sort of reputation. The Daily Telegraph