By Jim Wirth
The last time England won seven consecutive games was under Alf Ramsey in the run-up to their lone success in the 1966 FIFA World Cup. With their 2-1 win against F.Y.R. Macedonia on Saturday, manager Sven-Göran Eriksson matched that achievement, and will go one better if they can beat Liechtenstein on home soil.
More significantly, a win in Manchester will push the English past Turkey at the top of UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying Group 7 ahead of the sides' last-day encounter in Istanbul on 11 October.
England will be group winners if they win that game, regardless of the result at Old Trafford on Wednesday. And while the English public may be baying for a landslide win against the group's minnows, the team's Swedish coach may not be too inclined to risk his best players with such a big game looming.
With David Beckham, Sol Campbell and Steven Gerrard all one yellow card away from an automatic suspension, it remains to be seen who Eriksson will select for the Liechtenstein game, which takes place on the same night that Slovakia host F.Y.R. Macedonia.
Gerrard's importance to England can be summed up in one statistic - they have not lost on any of the 19 occasions he has played for his country. He missed Saturday's game in Skopje with a minor injury, and is getting used to the idea of being withdrawn for Wednesday's game too.
"I spoke to the manager on Sunday," said the Liverpool FC midfield player. "He said 'I'm not sure whether I am going to play you but if I do I want you to be very careful because I want you available for Turkey'."
'I want to play'
"I want to play," added the combative youngster whose tough-tackling style makes the occasional booking something of an occupational hazard. "
I'll understand the situation if I don't but, being an England player and especially after missing one international, I want to play in the next game."
Eriksson also has to deal with the absence through injury of Manchester United FC midfield player Nicky Butt and defender Rio Ferdinand. However, he is not without useful replacements and the Liechtenstein game could be a good opportunity for the coach to showcase the talents of some of England's less celebrated players.
Chelsea FC's Joe Cole and Liverpool's Danny Murphy would certainly be fine replacements for Beckham and Gerrard. Cole's Chelsea team-mate Wayne Bridge may also be given a run-out on the left side of defence or in midfield in a game which England should win at a canter.
While England's critics have been underwhelmed by Eriksson's side's inability to control a game for a full 90 minutes, there is now no denying their winning habits. "
Granted, we've conceded a few early goals but we must be doing something right to win seven on the trot," said goalkeeper David James. A few early goals conceded by James' opposite number on Wednesday would doubtless be welcome in Manchester.
"I hope he is gentle with us," joked Liechtenstein goalkeeper Peter Jehle as he pondered facing Beckham in his first game back at Old Trafford since joining Real Madrid CF. Beckham has said he will play but even without his captain, Eriksson would hope Jehle would still be in for a rough evening.
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