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Skipper toasts absent friends.

Byline: By Mark Bradley

The phoney war is almost over and the real battle is about to begin.

While Jermain Defoe pushed himself to the front of the queue of outsiders for a Euro 2004 squad place, the stark truth of England's 1-0 defeat in Sweden was that the understudies are not yet the real deal.

This was the first time that Sven-Goran Eriksson had been without both David Beckham and Michael Owen at the same time and their absence certainly showed in Gothenburg last night.

The irony was that their two direct replacements - Owen Hargreaves on the right flank and Defoe, who replaced the injured Darius Vassell after just 12 minutes, up front - were actually England's two best performers.

But while Hargreaves struck the bar with a Beckhamesque free-kick and Defoe was a constant menace to the Swedish defence, England only flickered intermittently into life without their two leading lights.

Stand-in captain Steven Gerrard, who lost his unbeaten record in an England shirt, admitted: "We missed the big boys.

"You're always going to miss that much quality, even though the new faces did OK. The manager tried a lot of things but I'm sure we'll be ready when the serious stuff comes on."

Not that England, who were also without Sol Campbell and Paul Scholes, as well as Gary Neville and Ashley Cole, are entirely alone in depending upon their star performers.

Euro 2004 opponents France would be a different proposition without Zinedine Zidane or Thierry Henry, although they at least would still have Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and David Trezeguet.

Meanwhile, England are rather reliant on their two leading men. For all of Defoe's obvious long-term potential, he remains a talent for the future, while Hargreaves' best role is as the central midfield enforcer.

Eriksson added: "I should be lying if I said that I didn't miss Michael Owen. At a big tournament, he is very important to us."

Not that the England coach was unimpressed by Defoe's effervescent display, with one jinking run leading to a powerful shot which was tipped over the bar.

"You can see he's a big talent, technically very good, he wasn't nervous at all, he's quick and he knows where the goal is," observed Eriksson.

"In the future, he will be even better as he will be physically stronger, but I liked what I saw.

"He has a chance of making the squad of course. I have always said that the door is still open until the start of June. I have to pick a squad on May 17, but I can change that until June 3."

Defoe will nevertheless only make that squad if there is an injury to Owen, Wayne Rooney, Emile Heskey or Vassell, with Alan Smith, who was harshly treated in a brief cameo role on the right flank, being another contender.

Injuries are nevertheless exactly what Eriksson fears most ahead of this summer, having been forced to cope without Neville and Gerrard, and with only a half-fit Beckham, at the 2002 World Cup.

In Gothenburg, where he first made his name as a manager, he had at most five of his first-choice players on display, although John Terry and Jonathan Woodgate were both available to state their case to partner Campbell.

"Whoever I choose, I think that I can't make a mistake as Terry and Woodgate are both very good. I hope that both of them are available this summer," remarked Eriksson.

His side performed well enough in the first-half, although they failed to take their chances as first Rooney, from close range, and then Hargreaves, with a free-kick, both hit the woodwork.

Hargreaves also had a shot tipped around the post, while Rooney had an effort saved and Defoe came close after the restart.

Sweden were nevertheless far more ruthless, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic wrapping his leg around the static figure of Phil Neville to reach Kim Kallstrom's cross and clip the ball past David James.

England made a host of substitutions thereafter but it was Sweden who threatened to increase their lead through Kallstrom and Christian Wilhelmsson.

Indeed, with Joe Cole wasting a late half-chance, England's failure to beat Sweden was extended to 11 games and 36 years.

They could still, theoretically, meet again this year in the Euro 2004 semi-finals. Eriksson can only hope he has both Owen and Beckham available again by then if England are finally to prevail.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:735
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