09 September 2007

England 3-0 Israel

That went about as well as England could have hoped. To be fair, Israel was pretty dire.

Since by now most have probably read a write-up of the game if not saw the match, I’ll limit my thoughts for brevity’s sake.

- It’s hard to tell how much was actual progress and players playing to potential, and how much was down to Israel’s poor performance, which should be kept in mind throughout my comments. Israel defended from the opening whistle and showed little ambition to get forward. Robinson didn’t have a save to make.

- What is this, 2002? The way that Heskey and Owen played, it sure seemed like it. And while surprising, it’s undeniably pleasing to see. There’s certainly some nostalgia value as a Liverpool fan. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the pairing has to start against Russia, even considering Crouch returns from suspension. It was a marvelous goal by Mickey too, even if he was wasteful on other occasions.

- Gerrard played well, but slowed as the game went on and limped off after 70 minutes with Wednesday’s match in mind, although today he's said that the toe's healing and it was down to cramp and a lack of fitness. Pity how important the Russia game is, as McClaren will undoubtedly start him again. Heaven help my reaction should Stevie re-injure his foot.

- I thought Gareth Barry in central midfield and both Joe Cole and Wright-Phillips on the flanks were excellent, which means all the more as Barry rarely plays for England, Cole’s been frequently injured, and Wright-Phillips hasn’t always impressed in an England shirt.

- Funny how Frank Lampard doesn’t play and all of England’s midfielders earn plaudits.

- Micah Richards just took Gary Neville’s England place. I just feel absolutely awful for Citizen Neville.

- The booing of David Bentley after he came on was wholly out of order. So he skipped the Under-21 Euros as to avoid fatigue for the side that pay his wages after a long and grinding season where he saw more time than he ever had in the past, and after he had already featured as a full England international. An understandable decision, and were he a Liverpool player, I would have applauded it. And for fans to boo him incessantly is mind-bogglingly small-minded and juvenile.

- Thanks for stealing “Ring of Fire” from Liverpool, England fans. Now I’m going to feel dirty when (if) it’s heard ringing throughout Anfield.

With Macedonia’s loss to Russia and Israel’s dire performance (and a game less left than their competitors), it’s pretty clear that 2nd place in Group E is between England and Russia.

Croatia, 2 points ahead of Russia and 3 ahead of England, is going to win the group. And on results, they deserve to. They’ve been the best team so far, and they’ve probably got the easiest run-in of the teams in contention.

England hosts Russia and Estonia before traveling to Russia and finishing against Croatia at Wembley. Croatia is at Andorra, home against Israel, and at Macedonia before traveling to England. Russia has the two games against England before Israel and Andorra away.

Russia was always going to be a harder ask than Israel, and thanks to England’s win yesterday, it’s even more essential that they pick up three more points Wednesday to keep up momentum. As one of the two is going to finish second in the group, the winner of this game will have an enormous advantage over the other.

Should Russia win, they’ll be four points up on England, and England will assuredly need to win their last three. It will also be a big ask for England to pick themselves up from what would be a devastating loss.

And a draw wouldn’t be much better. Russia will still lead on points, they’ll be that much more confident going into the home game, and England will still probably have to win their last three.

But should England play as they did against Israel and win, as they certainly looked capable of, it will put them in an excellent position for the remaining qualifiers.

So is today’s result another false dawn for England, like the early matches of McClaren’s reign, or a true turning point?

We’ll find out on Wednesday.

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