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Backline on the back foot
Two years ago, after England were beaten in the World Cup quarter-finals by Brazil, there was one clear consolation for Sven-Göran Eriksson's team: their defence.

Thursday, 29 April 2004

Rio Ferdinand and Sol Campbell had become established as one of the best central defensive partnerships in international football, keeping clean sheets against Argentina, Nigeria and Denmark. In back-up, Eriksson could call on the experience of Gareth Southgate and the prodigious talent of Wes Brown and Jonathan Woodgate. 

However, with EURO 2004 approaching, it is the centre of defence that is causing Eriksson his biggest headache. Of his preferred candidates, only Campbell is certain of going to Portugal, as injury and suspension have blighted his team-mates. 

The first, and biggest, setback came last October when it emerged that Ferdinand had failed to attend a routine drugs test at his club, Manchester United. He was immediately dropped for England's decisive EURO 2004 qualifier in Turkey, and then in December the Football Association decided to suspend Ferdinand for eight months. 

Still, Eriksson had other options. Woodgate was having a superb campaign for Newcastle United. His club captain Alan Shearer told "For me, Woodgate is one of the best, if not the best, centre-back in the country. With Rio out, it's a great opportunity for 'Woody' to show the rest of Europe and the rest of the world what a great player he is." 

Meanwhile, Southgate was in prime form for Middlesbrough, who in February won the English League Cup, their first major trophy. Brown had made an injury comeback for United and John Terry had emerged as a star performer in Chelsea's all-star lineup. 

But recent weeks have brought disheartening news. First Southgate damaged knee ligaments in training with Middlesbrough, ending his Premiership season prematurely. He said: "I am confident I will be fit for the finals in Portugal", though he will lack match sharpness. 

However, Southgate may be needed as last week Woodgate was ruled out for six weeks with a torn thigh muscle. His hopes have not been completely dashed either, but Brown's may have been after Eriksson suggested the United man was still suffering the effects of a long-term knee injury. 

The coach said: "Wes Brown is still not what he was before his injury." That has made England even more grateful for the form of Terry, who is now Campbell's first-choice partner in the absence of Ferdinand. 

"At the moment it looks like Sol Campbell and John Terry are the only two who are certain to be fit," said Eriksson's assistant Tord Grip, although Tottenham Hotspur's Ledley King also staked his claim with a fine debut in the 1-1 draw in Portugal in February. 

In Korea/Japan it was the England midfield that was the worry as Steven Gerrard was ruled out and David Beckham struggled for fitness with an injured toe. This time there are no doubts over either, nor for that matter over Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Frank Lampard or key forwards Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey. 

That is just as well, as England pray for the continued good health of Campbell and Terry and the recovery of Woodgate and Southgate. Having terrorised English defences all year with Arsenal, the last thing England want is to give Thierry Henry an easy ride as France await in their opening game of the finals.
- Paul Saffer




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