England 0 Spain 1: McClaren and his team booed off after another bleak night

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The Independent Online

Steve McClaren called last night's England team his "Plan X" and now he must hope that there is something very special in his plans Y and Z. There is a bleakness that is engulfing his new regime, a despondency that echoed down the Old Trafford tunnel last night in the boos that accompanied England's defeated players off the pitch.

The real business awaits in Israel on 24 March in the crucial Euro 2008 qualifier and, after four games without a win under McClaren, that match looms with foreboding. The gloom that hung over this side from the World Cup finals last summer re-asserted itself with a vengeance. What could England take positively from last night? At least their new kit looked smart.

Not since November 2003, against Denmark, have England lost at home and the strain was written all over McClaren's face in the aftermath of defeat to Andres Iniesta's second-half goal. The England manager had seven players missing from his first-choice XI, he picked a 4-3-3 formation that should have suited those remaining, and once again they seemed to sleepwalk through a friendly against opposition who were barely interested.

The old wounds of Sven Goran Eriksson's regime are returning. The failure to make any meaningful progress from one game to another, the ponderous build-up, the inability to get the same kind of performances from Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard that they produce for their clubs. "There were a few performances out there that were not up to their usual standards," McClaren said. That was putting it lightly.

It will be another painful few days for the England manager and he will bear the brunt of another week of self-loathing for English football. But with two attempts on target all match and just one goal in the last four games from this England team, McClaren may begin to ask just what he is supposed to do to coax a cohesive performance from his side. The memory of that defeat to Croatia seems to follow this side around and, beyond that, the unthinkable prospect of failing to qualify for Euro 2008.

McClaren had to withdraw Gerrard at half-time, an agreement he had struck with Liverpool before the match to protect the captain from a slight injury worry. In doing so he lost his most influential player although this was already an England side without any specialist left-sided player. Kieron Dyer was sent out to that wing in the first half to little effect, behind him Phil Neville improvised at left-back and on the other side there were even more problems.

Shaun Wright-Phillips had two bright moments at the start of the first half and then, when a promising pass from Gerrard slipped under his foot, he seemed to crumble. There is a skilful, indefatigable winger lurking in Wright-Phillips' psyche but last night it was painfully obvious that he left him behind somewhere along the way on his move from Manchester City.

In the closing stages, Joey Barton was finally given his England debut but even for him the chance, in his own words, to "rattle a few cages" had long since passed. There was no little irony that it was Lampard, one of the targets of some of his more trenchant recent criticisms, who he replaced and that was recognised by the crowd. They were due one little slice of entertainment on a bitterly disappointing night.

The side that finished the game had Gareth Barry at left-back, Jermain Defoe alongside Crouch in attack with Dyer on the right of midfield and Stewart Downing on the left. Barton played in the centre of midfield alongside Michael Carrick, Micah Richards was at right-back and Rio Ferdinand finally got his hands on the captain's armband. At times of crisis England go back to what they know. What they know is 4-4-2.

For about seven minutes at the start, England looked like they might make something of the game. There were quick balls into Peter Crouch, there was a bit of devil down the wings and then it faded as quickly as it had come. Over the past four years different versions of this England team have done exactly the same. They pass the ball competently but with no pace or invention, there is no hint that they will get behind their opponents' back four. They had a fortunate escape on 17 minutes when Valencia's Miguel Angulo broke down the right and cut the ball back to Fernando Morientes. He allowed Gary Neville to launch himself at a tackle before side-stepping the defender and, with the goal beckoning, he blasted the ball into the Stretford End.

Seven minutes before half-time Gerrard found Crouch in the right channel with a nicely weighted pass with the outside of his foot and the striker pulled his shot just wide of Iker Casillas' far post. Despite having two wingers around him, Crouch looked isolated.

Ben Foster had done well before the hour to fling himself at a shot from David Villa, the Valencia striker. Villa had drifted wide to collect the ball and he was at the heart of Spain's goal on 63 minutes.

The striker picked the ball up on the left, beat Jonathan Woodgate and put over a cross that grazed Ferdinand's head as Fernando Torres attacked. It fell to the feet of Iniesta, who struck a shot that curled past Foster and into the top corner of the England goal. This was becoming a desperate night for McClaren. There was the usual frantic activity on the bench, the depressing run of substitutions as squad players were sent out to take part in a performance that had already crushed the confidence from their team-mates.

There are six weeks until England play in Tel Aviv and of the seven players missing last night McClaren can count on only four returning. Beyond that game and the meeting with Andorra four days later, the future looks most uncertain.

England (4-3-3): Foster (Watford); G Neville (Manchester United), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Woodgate (Middlesbrough), P Neville (Everton); Gerrard (Liverpool), Carrick (Manchester United), Lampard (Chelsea); Wright-Phillips (Chelsea), Crouch (Liverpool), Dyer (Newcastle United). Substitutes used: Barry (Aston Villa) for Gerrard, h-t; Richards (Manchester City) for G Neville, 64; Carragher (Liverpool) for Woodgate, 64; Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur) for Wright-Phillips, 69; Downing (Middlesbrough) for P Neville, 74; Barton (Manchester City) for Lampard, 79.

Spain (4-4-2): Casillas (Real Madrid); Ramos (Real Madrid), Ibanez (Atletico Madrid), Puyol (Barcelona), Capdevila (Deportivo La Coruña); Angulo (Valencia), Albelda (Valencia), Xavi (Barcelona), Silva (Valencia); Villa (Valencia), Morientes (Valencia). Substitutes used: Torres (Atletico Madrid) for Morientes, h-t; Angel (Celta Vigo) for Puyol, h-t; Navarro (Seville) for Ramos, h-t; Iniesta (Barcelona) for Angulo, 56; Arizmendi (Deportivo La Coruña) for Silva, 64; Fabregas (Arsenal) for Villa, 74.

Referee: M Weiner (Germany).

Wembley 'on track' for FA Cup final

The Football Association's chief executive, Brian Barwick, has confirmed that the "new" Wembley is on track to host this season's FA Cup final on 19 May.

Although construction is almost complete, Barwick has been reluctant to state definitively that Wembley would be open in time for the final. However, in his programme notes prior to last night's England game against Spain, Barwick said: "We are on track to host this year's FA Cup final at Wembley.

"This is still dependent on the final building issues being completed and a number of "ramp-up" events being held successfully beforehand. But if we get the green light hopefully there will be an opportunity to play our first England international at the new stadium, in late May, against significant opposition."

It has already been suggested that Brazil or Argentina will be England's first opponents at the new stadium.

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