Sven-Goran Eriksson has identified Liverpool duo Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard as the key to England's chances of claiming a famous victory over France in Lisbon today (7.45pm kick-off). The England coach believes France could pay for under-estimating the value of Owen's killer touch in front of goal and that Gerrard is capable of stamping his authority on the Euro 2004 tournament.
"In any team Steven plays in, whether it's England or Liverpool, he's very important," Eriksson said on the eve of the Group B showdown. "He's a complete midfielder, he can do everything - tackle, score, pass 10 or 40 yards, his engine is incredible."
While Gerrard's importance to England has been widely acknowledged, Owen seems to have been pushed out of the limelight as a result of Thierry Henry's emergence as the world's outstanding striker.
But Eriksson remains quietly confident that, in Owen, England have a weapon every bit as lethal as his Arsenal counterpart. "I never forgot that we have Michael Owen. He is fit, in good shape, he seems to be mentally very strong and he's shown many times that he's the man for the big tournaments. We should absolutely not under-estimate him, although I hope France do."
Owen's slender shoulders will bear a considerable responsibility today. Against a French defence that has not conceded a goal in 11 matches, he knows he must make the most of the chances that come his way if England are to emerge from the Stadium of Light with a result.
While disputing suggestions that France's defence has passed its sell-by date, Owen is confident the inventiveness of England's midfield and his strike partner Wayne Rooney will ensure he gets the chance to add to his international tally of 25 goals from 56 international appearances.
"They have not conceded a goal in more than 17 hours I think. You can't argue with that but neither have they played against what we've got up front and in midfield that can hurt them," Owen said. "I do think they are probably one of the best - if not the best - defences in the world but I am not scared of them in any way and nor are any of the players."
This evening's match will bring Owen up against Mikael Silvestre after France coach Jacques Santini confirmed that the Manchester United defender will start instead of Marcel Desailly in the centre of the back four. Desailly has been troubled by a painful knee and finished his season with Chelsea in mixed form. But the veteran has tended to get the better of Owen in their meetings in the Premiership, something which cannot be said of Silvestre.
Eriksson would however be delighted to have the kind of defensive dilemma that his French counterpart faces. The suspension of Rio Ferdinand and injuries to Gareth Southgate, Jonathan Woodgate and, in the last week, John Terry have deprived him of four of his first five choices at centre-back.
As a result, Tottenham's Ledley King looks certain to make only his second international appearance alongside Sol Campbell in the most daunting of contexts. Eriksson, who has opted for King's pace over the greater experience of Liverpool's Jamie Carragher, will inevitably be extremely apprehensive of the damage Henry and David Trezeguet could do to the confidence of both the defender himself and the squad as a whole.
The Swede, however, pronounced himself confident that his makeshift back four could cope with whatever France throw at them. "Whoever plays instead of Terry will do a good job, I'm sure," he said. "He is our only injury. All the other players are ready, physically and mentally as well I hope."
Terry, who has been struggling with a hamstring injury, resumed training yesterday and will be fit for England's second match, against Switzerland on Thursday.
Filed by James Boylan