Goodnight Vienna for Michael Owen and farewell today, perhaps, for Steve McClaren. As the England manager prays for a good result for Israel against Russia, his leading goalscorer is out of Wednesday's Euro 2008 qualifier against Croatia. Hurt in a meaningless friendly last night, Owen's fate came to epitomise another bizarre night for England's embattled manager.
A frozen, insipid, pointless match was decided by Peter Crouch's goal in the first half but really this game stood for all that has been farcical about McClaren's seemingly doomed regime. Owen's strained thigh – which rules him out for a month – just made the night even more preposterous. The Austrian television cameras caught the Football Association chief executive Brian Barwick laughing uproariously as he sat in the VIP seats although no one else could see the funny side of this night.
Owen will be out for a month after injuring himself hitting a shot in the 32nd minute and his club Newcastle, who have a fractious relationship at best with the FA over their star striker, will not be impressed. Whoever scheduled this match at the FA evidently did so without recourse to the Met Office and in the space of a week now both Owen and Wayne Rooney are out injured for the Croatia game – although on this evidence of 34 ineffectual minutes Owen will not be missed.
Injuries have plagued the McClaren regime but he continued to insist last night that his squad still had enough to beat Croatia should they have a fighting chance come Wednesday. He claimed that the Owen injury, to his left leg, had "absolutely nothing" to do with the conditions. "It was a strange one, it was Michael's standing foot [as he shot] and he has strained his thigh," McClaren said. "That's football but we seem to be plagued with injuries and are going into our biggest game without our two first choice strikers and two first choice centre-halves."
It is a suspension that has ruled out Rio Ferdinand but McClaren does have a point and he said he will consider calling up a striker to the squad ahead of Wednesday's game. There was the usual clutching at straws afterwards, with special mention for Ashley Young who had a reasonable debut as a second half substitute. Asked why half the 4,400 travelling England fans left before the end, the FA explained that they had been forced to get early flights. Lucky them.
Certainly there was precious little to be enthusiastic about as England prepare to learn their Euro 2008 destiny from today's game in Tel Aviv. Crouch's goal – he now has 13 for England in only 23 caps – was a brief ray of sunshine in a dismal evening. Bone-chilling weather, snow on the ground and dreadful traditional Austrian "Volksmusik" played endlessly before the game by a hapless band of locals in red waistcoats on the pitch. It was most people's idea of a nightmarish Friday night.
There was no sweet music from England either until Crouch scored one minute from half-time even though McClaren's side happened to be playing against one of the most dismal teams in European football, so bad that Canada, Venezuela and Chile have all recently beaten Austria. They are ranked 88th in the world by Fifa (two places behind Benin) and that position flattered Austria at times but for much of the first half England were not much better. Their ten outfield players were static as snowmen, probably wondering – like the rest of us – what the hell they were doing out there in the cold.
On the occasion of his 98th cap, David Beckham was mediocre at best, consistently unable to beat the first man with his crosses. He regressed to hitting those long, curling diagonal balls – even more aptly known now as "Hollywood passes" – that he did as an England player in his days as captain. They slow the play down and are so predictable even Austria could defend against them. England's inability to get any kind of rhythm going was epitomised by a collision between Joe Cole and Frank Lampard who came together like two baseball outfielders staring up at the same ball.
More than once in the first half Cole went back to his old ways, twisting and turning and going nowhere. The game only came to life briefly on 23 minutes when Austria lost their goalkeeper, Jurgen Macho, who was knocked out cold by Crouch's shoulder when they challenged for a ball. When he did come round, the former Sunderland goalkeeper did not seem to know where he was – a problem that was also afflicting many of his team-mates.
In his place came the former Arsenal reserve Alex Manninger who stopped England's best effort of the game so far on 32 minutes. Cole played the ball inside to Steven Gerrard, his quick pass to Crouch was flicked on by the striker to Owen whose shot was tipped over. It was that effort however, that did for his thigh; within seconds he was limping to the touchline. Perhaps his muscles had seized up during the break in play to replace Macho but at least McClaren could console himself that he could not be blamed for the weather.
Jermain Defoe replaced Owen, and two minutes before half-time England finally made the breakthrough. Cole broke away on 43 minutes, had his shot saved and when the ball went loose Crouch's effort was deflected wide by Rene Aufhauser. From the ensuing corner the Liverpool striker headed Beckham's ball down and in. It was his 13th goal for England for whom he has been given only 13 starts.
Crouch should have scored a second when he squandered an easier chance than his goal had been on 58 minutes. Young crossed the ball from the left and the Liverpool man, completely unmarked, could not beat Manninger from close-range with his head. Gerrard, Sol Campbell and Cole all came off at half-time and as the game dawdled towards its inconclusive end, McClaren also substituted Crouch and Beckham. Lampard played the full 90 minutes and McClaren's reference to him as man of the match probably means he will start on Wednesday.
Afterwards the Austria coach Josef Hickersberger talked about the embarrassment for England should they not qualify for Euro 2008 – and this from a man whose team are ranked lower than Oman. At least Austria are going to be at the tournament next summer; while this morning that is still a vain hope for England.
Austria (4-2-3-1): Macho (AEK Athens); Garics (Napoli), Stranzl (Spartak Moscow), Schiemer (Austria Vienna), Gercaliu (Austria Vienna); Aufhauser (Salzburg), Sariyar (Austria Vienna); Standfest (Austria Vienna), Ivanschitz (Panathinaikos), Weissenberger (Eintracht Frankfurt); Kuljic (Austria Vienna). Substitutes used: Manninger (Siena, gk) for Macho, 25; Kienast (Ham-Kam) for Weissenberger, h-t; Leitgeb (Salzburg) for Kuljic, h-t; Harnik (Werder Bremen) for Sariyar, 65; Kavlak (Rapid Vienna) for Standfest, 77; Hiden (Rapid Vienna) for Stranzl, 86.
England (4-4-2): Carson (Aston Villa); Richards (Manchester City), Campbell (Portsmouth), Lescott (Everton), Bridge (Chelsea); Beckham (LA Galaxy), Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea), J Cole (Chelsea); Owen (Newcastle), Crouch (Liverpool). Substitutes used: Defoe (Tottenham) for Owen, 34; Brown (Manchester United) for Campbell, h-t; Barry (Aston Villa) for Gerrard, h-t; Young (Aston Villa) for J Cole, h-t; Bentley (Blackburn) for Beckham, 62; Smith (Newcastle) for Crouch, 72 .Reuse content