The more I think about it, the less incredulous I am that England must win games against Israel and Russia to even have a chance at qualifying for Euro 2008.
The problems aren’t solely because of injuries to key players, although the absence of Rooney, Lampard, Beckham, Owen (in previous matches), and Hargreaves (possibly), among others, has and will continue to hurt.
It’s not even because of Steve McClaren, although he hasn’t helped matters or himself.
And while the FA has time and time again proved themselves criminally inept, running the gamut of foul-ups, it’s not completely their fault either.
This has been a long time coming.
England underperformed at the 2006 World Cup, but that in and of itself isn’t all that surprising. There’s definitely a precedent for it.
But since then, they’ve clearly regressed. Which after Sven Goran Eriksson I didn't think possible.
Right now, England sits fourth in Group E on 14 points. Russia has 15, Israel and Croatia 17, although Israel has played one more game than the other three. When the group was drawn up, with England matched up against those three teams as well as Macedonia, Estonia, and Andorra, the majority of pundits were pleased at the outcome. This originally looked like a group that England could qualify from with ease.
But it hasn’t been.
After two wins against Andorra and Macedonia that gave the appearance that McClaren might be a different manager than Eriksson, England drew against Macedonia at home 0-0, lost to Croatia 0-2 in the embarrassing ‘3-5-2’ game, and drew Israel 0-0 in Tel Aviv. The last two games have seen 3-0 away victories over Estonia and Andorra, but had England not won those games, riots may have ensued.
In reaction to these problems, McClaren’s major moves have been to recall Beckham and now Heskey, and play as conservative a style as the one that Eriksson was lambasted for. Mistake-prone Paul Robinson is still the #1 keeper, no headway has been made in Lampard v Gerrard debate (as an aside, Gerrard’s been declared fit and may not even need an injection to play Saturday, and while I’m not happy about it, I’ve no desire to enter the club v country debate), and England is woefully understaffed at forward.
Nowhere near enough progress has been made in blooding youngsters, and that’s been a major fault of the last two England managers (especially in friendlies), but it’s also due to the media culture that demands results every time of asking and cries bloody murder when “star players” are left out.
And yet, England should still be favorites to qualify.
As proven in Tel Aviv last March, Israel will be no walk in the park. Benayoun, Ben Haim, Toto Tamuz, and Sahar are excellent players, three of whom ply their trade in England. Once again, it will come down to whether or not England can breach the opposition’s defense and score goals against decent opposition, which, despite their overall superiority, they were unable to do at Ramat Gan.
But this time should be different just in that it’s the national team’s first qualifier at Wembley. Being back at the national stadium, in the first meaningful game held there, should catalyze the team. That is, if the crowd stays on their side, which will come down to McClaren’s tactics and how England starts the game.
After the next two games, England will host Estonia and travel to Russia in October before finishing qualification at home against Croatia on November 21st. Chances are that England will need to win 4 out of the remaining 5 games to qualify.
And while I’ve spent the whole article trashing the team, manager, and set-up, they should be able to accomplish this.
Maybe it’s my biases or maybe it’s the fact that England’s always been one of football’s pre-eminent nations (not a joke, I swear), despite some of the results in major tournaments. But I can’t fathom England not qualifying for Euro 08, despite not being all that surprised at previous results or the state the England’s currently in. And I refuse to join the camp that secretly (or overtly) hopes against qualification for the sake of shaking the foundations of the international set-up.
I will however admit that should England drop points in either of these matches over the next week, the ‘McClaren out’ campaign will look mighty appetizing.
Roll on England.
Guess at a squad:
Richards Ferdinand Terry A. Cole
Wright-Phillips Carrick Gerrard J. Cole