England 0 Macedonia 0: England given instant chance for redemption

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The Independent Online

As Graham Taylor explained it to Phil Neal, while his England team faltered critically against Poland in 1993: "They've done everything that we told them not to do." It is surely the fate of all England managers one day to feel the same way and, after barely two months in a Football Association suit, Steve McClaren succumbed on Saturday to the old curse: watching England do everything he had told them not to do.

The honeymoon, as they say, is over for McClaren, although the three wins he started his job with turned out to be more of a mini-break around some of Europe's peripheral football states. After Greece, Andorra and the away victory in Macedonia, the era of good feeling for McClaren ended with one of those bizarrely incoherent displays that ostensibly talented England teams have inflicted upon their managers for generations.

Not quite the aura of utter hopelessness that characterised the worst parts of Sven Goran Eriksson's office, but McClaren searched fruitlessly for a lever to change his team's direction while a nation that occupies a footnote in world football passed in neat patterns around his players.

Someone later mentioned the "dark days" of the summer's World Cup finals in comparison and McClaren grimaced: "I don't agree with that," he said. "You have days like this in football. We had one."

If the benefit of the doubt is to be extended to McClaren, and as a prime mover of the past regime he cannot be afforded too much more of that, then take him at his word and ask what is to be done now. He certainly has a fabulous opportunity on Wednesday to change the mood. The Croats are talented, moody and have an unbeaten home record in qualifying matches that stretches 12 years - for an ambitious new England manager, they represent a very credible scalp.

Especially an England manager who is missing three of his four first-choice midfielders now Steven Gerrard is suspended to compound the injuries to Joe Cole and Owen Hargreaves. The answer lies not in some emotive reconciliation with David Beckham but mending again the problem England originally solved when they at last recognised that Hargreaves was a crucial factor in their midfield.

How the England crowd inside Old Trafford now miss the willing little Canadian they had booed before the World Cup finals. There was no one left to tidy up in the centre of midfield or break up the rhythm of passing that Goran Maznov and Ilco Naumoski developed just behind the playmaker Goran Pandev. England lacked Hargreaves' selfless streak.

In Gerrard and Frank Lampard, England have the pieces of a midfield; with Hargreaves they have industry to bring the whole ensemble together. Without him it is hard to fathom what Michael Carrick brings. He is, without question, a graceful footballer but he does not seem to be an international-class tackler or an organiser and, along with his Ecuador cameo, this is now the second high-profile match in which he has failed to make an impression.

Should McClaren decide that Carrick is not the replacement for Hargreaves he needs, he has a choice of three holding midfielders against Croatia. Scott Parker's inexperience at international level will count against him.

Phil Neville is a likelier candidate, although it would appear that Ledley King moving into midfield is the favoured option. That will be contingent on Rio Ferdinand returning to fitness, and his back problem was assessed last night.

With Gerrard out, Shaun Wright-Phillips made a case for the right wing. McClaren is unlikely to play him and Stewart Downing in such a tough away fixture so Wayne Bridge looks like a more viable option on the left if Wright-Phillips plays. A draw against Slaven Bilic's team is a creditable result, but in the context of Saturday's game it does not quite give McClaren the comfortable Christmas he would have hoped for.

It is a measure of the mess that England have pitched themselves into that Wayne Rooney's bewildering lack of form has to take second place to the re-making of the midfield, but it is an almighty concern for McClaren. Rooney's substitution was no shock and even the lingering indulgences of teenage angst that bedevil the 20-year-old did not permit him a fit of pique at the decision. The big man was back in town all right - but hardly anyone noticed.

"You can't just give up. I've seen him work extra [hard] in training. He's frustrated. He knows that," McClaren said. "Wayne has to show character and resilience now and come through it. Everyone knows what a quality player he is. Everybody knows what he can do and the next game may be the one where it happens."

The other big man, Peter Crouch, offered more in the closing stages: a volley into the ground that bounced up at goalkeeper Jane Nikolovski and a header that soared wide. Gerrard struck the bar with a shot that, had it gone in, would have been a spectacular, if undeserved, redemption for England. And Lampard attempted to pick up the pieces. But this would have been a much worse afternoon had Ashley Cole not tidied away Nikolce Novevski's effort that got past Paul Robinson.

"I expected more from England's midfield, they had no ideas and no crosses," said Sretko Katanec, the Macedonia coach. "I knew before the match they would lack ideas, they had no aggression."

A cruel assessment but difficult to dispute and it comes from a man whose success with Slovenia and this Macedonia side demonstrates that he understands something about international football.

For McClaren, there was much to learn from a day when Scotland achieved the kind of result England would treasure without a single player who would, in all honesty, make an international team this side of the border.

They are still a long way from a full emergency. England have drawn at home to Macedonia before, but a corner has been turned. On the touchline at Old Trafford on Saturday, McClaren experienced for the first time that creeping horror common to all his predecessors of a malfunctioning England team failing against less-vaunted opposition. Dropping Beckham was his first big decision; the team he picks to play against Croatia, and the performance, is no less important.

England (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham); G Neville (Manchester United), King (Tottenham), Terry (Chelsea), A Cole (Chelsea); Gerrard (Liverpool), Lampard (Chelsea), Carrick (Manchester United), Downing (Middlesbrough); Rooney (Manchester United), Crouch (Liverpool). Substitutes used: Wright-Phillips (Chelsea) for Downing, 69; Defoe (Tottenham) for Rooney, 75.

Macedonia (3-4-2-1): Nikolovski (Slaven Belupo); Sedloski (Mattersburg) I Mitreski (Energie Cottbus), Novevski (Mainz); Lazarevski (Groclin), A Mitreski (Cologne), Sumolikovski (Bursaspor), Petrov (CSKA Sofia); Maznov (Lokeren), Naumoski (Mattersburg); Pandev (Lazio). Substitutes: Stojkov (Partizan Belgrade) for Naumoski, h-t); Tasevski (Metalurg Zaporizhya) for Pandev, 83.

Booked: England Gerrard; Macedonia Petrov.

Referee: MMerk (Germany).

Man of the match: Pandev.

Midfield machinations: How England can cope without Gerrard against Croatia

With Owen Hargreaves, Aaron Lennon and Joe Cole injured, and Steven Gerrard suspended, Steve McClaren has to change his midfield against Croatia. Here we assess the available options for McClaren in a world without David Beckham...

* LEDLEY KING

Pros: In fine form, as his contribution against Macedonia confirmed, and has already shown against the likes of Argentina and Poland that he can handle the defensive midfield role.

Cons: Would not offer England the extra attacking dimension that will be required to beat Croatia.

* SHAUN WRIGHT-PHILLIPS

Pros: The only natural replacement for Gerrard's right-wing berth in the squad. Can beat his man and supply crosses to Rooney and Crouch that were sorely lacking on Saturday.

Cons: Has hardly been seen since moving to Chelsea last summer, which has taken a toll on his touch and, inevitably, his confidence.

* WAYNE BRIDGE

Pros: If Wright-Phillips plays on Wednesday, then Bridge's defensive attributes would give midfield a more balanced look. Has played in midfield for both club and country.

Cons: Is unlikely to provide adventure on the flank. Confirms England are playing to avoid defeat, rather than to win.

* SCOTT PARKER

Pros: A natural alternative to the disappointing Michael Carrick. His tenacity would be suited to a hostile night in Zagreb and provide a foil to Lampard.

Cons: As with Wright-Phillips, unproven at international level and, as with Sven Goran Eriksson previously, has yet to gain a seal of approval from the new England manager.

* POSSIBLE TEAM

(4-4-2): Robinson; G Neville, Ferdinand, Terry, A Cole; Wright-Phillips, King, Lampard, Bridge; Rooney, Crouch.

Andy Hunter

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