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Friendlies are, with good reason, much maligned, but at least England's outing against Ukraine a fortnight ago gave Sven-Göran Eriksson the opportunity directly to compare the two players who, in the absence of Wayne Rooney, will vie to partner Michael Owen in the World Cup qualifier away to Austria on Saturday.
Alan Smith and Jermain Defoe have both been in superb form domestically, but despite the fact that Smith would appear a more naturally complementary partner for Owen, Defoe was the more impressive against Ukraine. That said, he only came on at half-time, by which time the Ukrainians had lost interest in the game. Whoever plays, Eriksson insists, England will not be too deflated by Rooney's continuing absence with a broken metatarsal.
"I don't think we rely on him," he said on Tuesday, despite the obvious diminution in England's performance against Portugal in the Euro 2004 quarter-final after Rooney had gone off. "We have always had Michael Owen, who I suppose is our best goalscorer. We have others coming through like Alan Smith and Jermain Defoe, so I think we are rather well-covered." Eriksson's other big decision, as ever, concerns the midfield. He would, presumably, like to field the four who started against Ukraine, but Nicky Butt has a hamstring injury and will not be fit to face Austria. "He wasn't in Portugal," Eriksson said, "so probably Steven Gerrard will go back to the centre, and we will see what happens on the left. We have lots of options: Joe Cole, [Kieron] Dyer or Wayne Bridge." Bridge at the moment appears the favourite.
Had it not been for injury, he would have played some part of the friendly against Ukraine, and Eriksson was keen to exonerate him from blame for the disappointing 2-2 draw at home to FYR Macedonia last time he was deployed in the position. Losing Butt almost forces Eriksson to adopt a more attacking approach, which should help satisfy those who condemned the negativity of his tactics in Portugal, not that their approval is something that bothers Eriksson. "My desire is for England to win and for England to play in the Word Cup," he said. "The main objective is to win, and if we can win and play good football, I will be extremely happy. If we win and we play not so good football, I will be less happy. We never go out trying to play boring football."
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