England are back where they started

Sep 2, 2006England beat Andorra 5-0 in a somewhat pointless Euro 2008 qualifier. Having beaten Greece convincingly some time before in a friendly, McClaren’s “new England” are buoyant and enthusiastic about their future.

Sep 12, 2007England beat Russia 3-0 at Wembley. Having beaten Israel 3-0 4 days ago, McClaren’s “new England” have new heroes and the future is bright again.

What has passed in the year between these two dates cannot be dismissed on the back of two home wins against sides you are expected to brush away without fuss.

Too much has been made of Israel’s past record, Russia’s defensive record in the Euro 2008 qualifiers or Guus Hiddink’s leadership. There comes a point where your players simply aren’t good enough, and both Israel and Russia learned that against England in the last 5 days.

England, on the other hand, are not reborn nor have they suddenly discovered the missing element to their game. They won two home games against mediocre opposition, the first thanks to Barry, SWP and Richards and the second thanks to Michael Owen, Richards and A Cole (the two England full-backs had a big role to play in shutting down Russia’s attacking threat). What England, or rather McClaren, have belatedly realised is that you need a balanced team with matchwinners to perform to expectation, and they’ve done just that.

Not that England is balanced – our left-flank still needs tweaking (there were countless occasions where Joe Cole, given the opportunity to run further down the left and cross the ball in, chose to cut inside and try a through-pass – against a better defense he would have been checked and neutralised with ease) and Heskey, for his size, is not convincing up front.

Both of Michael Owen’s goals came as a result of the Russian defense marking the taller guys – Terry on the first goal and Heskey on the second. It shows the value of a big man – little man partnership, but you have to ask whether a team like Portugal or Croatia would give Owen that much space. The Russians were guilty of giving too much space at times, most notably to Owen but also to Rio Ferdinand at the end, who scored a well-taken goal and spat in the face of a certain journalist who claimed that Rio couldn’t go forward.

England have a long way to go. Steve McClaren has a long way to go. This side is nowhere near at it’s best, and hopefully we’ll see the real fireworks when we play home to Estonia on 13th October. Questions will be asked once Neville, Lennon, Beckham, Hargreaves, Lampard and Rooney return to fitness. At the moment SWP and Lennon would keep Beckham out of the side, and Rooney would presumably get his spot back with (hopefully) Crouch getting the 3rd striker role instead of Heskey.

That leaves the cases of Neville and Lampard. In my view it’s time to give Richards a long run in the England squad, and Neville should perhaps retire from international duty (I doubt he’ll accept being second-choice) and concentrate on Manchester United. We don’t have many recognised options for right-back but there is no way in hell that taking Richards off at the moment can be a good choice.

Richards still needs to learn how to put those crosses in though.

Lampard – oh well, what can we say about that? Barry’s taken the chance presented to him with both hands, something that Hargreaves did before him (and something Carrick couldn’t do). Time will tell, but it’s most likely that Lampard will get his position back when he returns – the only question is whether Hargreaves would get his if he’s fit and Lamps or Gerrard isn’t.

England’s visit to Moscow is by no means a done deal. Russia will be better prepared, they’ll have the home advantage and that can turn a 3-0 loss into a 1-1 draw or even a 2-1 win.

Russia play England at home before taking on Andorra and Israel away. That’s a possible 9 points, so if Russia are to win against England at home, they can easily pip them to the Euro 2008 qualifiers by beating Andorra away (not impossible).

England still need to win their last 3 games, which also means beating Croatia at Wembley. This squad has it in it to beat Croatia, but then this squad was good enough to beat Germany at home as well, and look what happened.

Confidence is good but it’s not going to be enough when England go away to Russia and face Croatia at home. They’ll need something extra, and unless McClaren can motivate them, it’s a case of the players coming up with the goods.

England’s remaining Euro 2008 fixtures:

England vs Estonia – 13/10/2007
Russia vs England – 17/10/2007
England vs Croatia – 21/11/2007

Full fixtures list

Group E Standings:

Team, Played, Points

Croatia, 9, 23
England, 9, 20
Russia, 9, 18
Israel, 9, 17

Full Standings list

Note: Scotland could come through at the expense of either France or Italy – heh, at least one other country has England’s problems, eh (Portugal aren’t that comfortable either)?

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