Frank Lampard may have little to
reproach himself for, yet the ifs and buts remain as large as ever
for Sven-Göran Eriksson as he ponders England's Euro 2004 midfield.
The figure should, above all others, dominate Eriksson's mind over
the next ten days. Not Thierry Henry, not even Robert Pires, Patrick
Vieira or David Trezeguet, but Zinedine Zidane. Eriksson's
impersonation of a Kevin Keegan midfield at the City of Manchester
stadium against Japan may have added to England's attacking options.
Indeed, Lampard himself, who was chosen ahead of Nicky Butt in the
holding midfield role, performed admirably in the experimental
circumstances. However, even though England seized the lead on
23 minutes through Michael Owen, they lost control of the game
Japan were allowed far too much time
and space from which to launch their attacks and Shinji Ono duly
equalised seven minutes into the second-half. Moreover, their
own creative attacking midfielder, Shumsuke Nakamura is no Zidane
and the French midfield maestro will lick his lips at the prospect
of exploiting the gaps in England's midfield. Then again, all
the normal caveats must, of course, apply.
This was a friendly, the players were
intent on avoiding injury - even if Gary Neville did, rather
worryingly, limp off - and, come June 13, this result will matter
not a jot. Yet like it or not, Butt - or, indeed, Owen
Hargreaves, Phil Neville or Ledley King, who have all played in the
holding role for their clubs this season - would give England
exactly the "balance'' which Eriksson believes is so crucial.
And if Lampard is not at fault, then - whisper it quietly - maybe,
just maybe, the time has come for the England coach to at least
consider leaving out Paul Scholes instead. Without an
international goal in 26 appearances, he was patently off the pace
in the City of Manchester Stadium, not just in his shooting, but
also even in his normally exemplary tackling.
Lampard, meanwhile, had to restrain
his normal game, with Steven Gerrard and David Beckham attempting to
share the defensive burden with him. The Chelsea midfielder at
least settled quickly into the unaccustomed role, breaking up a
Japanese attack to launch a counter offensive which resulted in
Tsuneyasu Miyamoto heading over his own bar. From the ensuing
corner, John Terry's powerful header was only half-saved by keeper
Seigo Narazaki but was just hooked off the line in time.
Lampard had a shot deflected over the
bar but England seized the lead when Narazaki failed to handle
Gerrard's speculative long-range effort and Owen swooped on the
rebound with glee. England nevertheless then relaxed on their
lead and Japan were, rather worryingly, allowed to swarm forward in
David James was forced to produce
three reaction saves, while Ashley Cole also timed a last-ditch
tackle to perfection to deny Keiji Tamada. Scholes, meanwhile,
was racing about recklessly, missing tackles and almost conceding a
penalty when he clashed with Alessandro Santos. And even Wayne
Rooney showed his wild side in seemingly attempting to slap Shinji
Ono as he fell to the ground. England needed to rediscover
their discipline but, after Lampard had shot just over the bar, they
were caught napping in defence just seven minutes after the restart.
Nakamura was allowed far too much
space in which to dictate play before setting Santos free down the
left flank to cross for Ono to beat James. Eriksson kept his
first-choice XI on for a full 76 minutes, but while Narazaki was
called upon to block Owen's shot after a neat turn, Japan still
largely dictated the game. Indeed, while Lampard sat deeper
and deeper, Nakamura - again in space - still let fly from 20 yards
with a shot which flew just wide of James' upright. Ono also
shot just wide and James failed to hold onto Santos' cross-shot but
he was not punished.
Eriksson finally started making his
changes, with Neville being caught in a late tackle by Takayuki
Suzuki and replaced by his brother Phil. Campbell, meanwhile,
directed a header just wide and Joe Cole also threatened, but the
draw was about as decisive as Eriksson's midfield experiment.
In truth, the question remains unanswered. Time, however, is running
out for Eriksson to find the solution and Zidane lies in wait.