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* Even in his absence, the presence of David Beckham looms large. Commanding as England's position is in their World Cup qualifying group, the build-up to the game against Azerbaijan has been dominated by Beckham's admission that he deliberately got himself booked against Wales in order to serve a suspension for a game he would miss anyway through injury.
Sir Geoff Hurst described Beckham as having "brought the country into disrepute" by deliberately charging into Ben Thatcher on Saturday but Sven-Göran Eriksson, not surprisingly, was more inclined to be conciliatory. "It's always been that way in football," he said on Tuesday in Baku. "That a player takes a yellow card to miss the next game and play one after. Whether we condone it or not, it's always been there. We can't close our eyes to that."
Eriksson's position is made all the more difficult by the fact that Beckham will be replaced as captain by Michael Owen, who has admitted he considers the morally dubious practice of "enticing" defenders into fouls as "a skill". "I really don't know where you want to bring football," Eriksson said with evident exasperation.
"All the time in every country in the world an attacker gets a small tackle and goes down when maybe he could have stayed on his feet. What's that? That's football. You want to put the morals above the roof. It's not good but it happens. If it were a perfect world, everybody would be perfect. I will not talk to Michael Owen about going down. Jesus, I don't travel with a school class around the world. I'm not a school teacher or a sunday school teacher." An official statement on Beckham's conduct is expected later this week but on a more practical level, Eriksson must decide how to cope with his captain's absence on the pitch. One option, which Owen appeared to advocate, was returning to 4-4-2, which would mean Shaun Wright-Phillips coming in on the right, with Jermain Defoe dropping to the bench, Ashley Cole moving to the left side of midfield, and Ledley King taking his place at left-back. Last night, though, Eriksson appeared to be leaning towards retaining 4-3-3, with Jermaine Jenas in as a straight replacement for Beckham in a match that will be watched by Fifa president Sepp Blatter. Jonathan Wilson in Baku
* Manager Berti Vogts knows he could be sacked if Scotland fail to bring back all three points from their game in Moldova. There have already been plenty of calls for the German's head following Saturday's 1-0 defeat by Norway, the first time since 1985 that a World Cup qualifier had been lost at Hampden Park.
Of criticism by former Scottish internationals, Vogts said: "It is not helpful for the young players, for the new team …we are a small nation and people should not forget that."
Vogts, who will have to sit in the stands following his half-time sending-off on Saturday, is convinced he still has the support of the Scottish Football Association hierarchy.
Northern Ireland's hopes of qualifying are already hanging by a thread after only two points from the first three games. Nothing less than a victory at home to Austria will do and Lawrie Sanchez is looking for Wales, playing their last match under Mark Hughes, to do his side a favour and beat second-placed Poland at the Millennium Stadium. That would bunch up the play-off contenders behind England.
* David Collier is expected to be unveiled at Lord's as the new chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Collier, 48, chief executive of Nottinghamshire, will take over from Tim Lamb who announced his departure in May. His appointment comes as the sport is again under pressure to restructure in spite of the improvement in the perform-ances of the England team under Michael Vaughan's captaincy. England also face a politically contentious tour of Zimbabwe this winter. David Owen
* Rugby Football Union chief executive Francis Baron has backed the idea of moving the RBS Six Nations towards the end of the season. Independent consultants have been appointed to draw up proposals as to how the northern hemisphere season can be restructured to relieve the "pressure points" that spark club-versus-country rows. None of the four recommendations Deloitte & Touche has made so far are said to be radical but they do mean changing dates "at the margin", something Baron supports. "We are prepared to look at all the options," said Baron. "We are being more positive and open about the need for change than some of our friends in the other northern hemisphere unions."
* The British grand prix at Silverstone is expected be included on Formula One's draft 2005 calendar when it is published today. The final details of the contract with Silverstone's owners have still to be completed but the inclusion of the race ends uncertainty about next year.
* Kieren Fallon, injured in a fall on Monday, was unable to take his six scheduled rides at Leicester on Tuesday.
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