England 3 Estonia 0: Astute England threatened by Russians' artificial intelligence

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a country that once liked to boast of its formidable production of everything from iron ore to cucumbers it is a pity that Russia cannot find a serviceable patch of grass 130 yards by 100 yards across to play international football on come Wednesday night. Steve McClaren is closer to getting it right than at any time in his 14 months in charge; the last thing he needs now is for the proverbial floor covering – natural or otherwise – to be whipped away from under his feet.

We call it Astroturf, McClaren prefers the trademark name of Fieldturf, but whatever it is England find under their feet at the Luzhniki stadium on Wednesday night it will not feel familiar. The victory over Estonia on Saturday was McClaren's fifth successive 3-0 victory in qualifying since the draw with Israel in Tel Aviv in March. One more victory and he has reached Euro 2008 from perilous times in Group E one year ago. Moscow will maketh the man and this trip promises to be something of a throwback in terms of international football.

It is a return to a time before Uefa guidelines and match delegates took all the fun out of the skulduggery that would accompany away games in Europe. Before the Russians protest, it is utterly absurd that a nation of their size and standing is staging an international match on an artificial surface. The BBC weather centre's predicted temperature for Moscow on Wednesday night is 7C, which anyone who has ever watched a game at the Reebok Stadium between the months of November and March will tell you is comparably temperate – and easily warm enough for natural turf. So what are the Russians up to?

McClaren was not for entering into a row on Saturday, assiduously following a Football Association policy of refusing to tweak the tail of the Russians. "We have looked at the ProZone research and there is no difference in performance [on the artificial Luzhniki stadium pitch]," McClaren said. "I have looked at more than 100 games and the game is no different – in loss of possession, keeping possession. There are not more headers, not more tackles. It doesn't bounce higher. There's absolutely no excuse."

ProZone is, of course, the software package that McClaren claims a part in inventing – the logging of every movement and action of every player through a game. It is his touchstone as a manager to the extent his squad's ProZone stats are displayed on a board in the England team hotel dining room. He may even use ProZone to order his shopping online for him. But you do not need ProZone or a bad case of Cold War paranoia to worry about why the Russians have chosen the Luzhniki.

The key issue is whether the surface of the pitch will be the same when England train tomorrow night in Moscow as it is come 7pm local time on Wednesday. The FA says that a Uefa delegate will be present to make sure that continuity is observed although you have to doubt the likely effectiveness of that particular bureaucrat.

A similar problem was encountered by Celtic when they played Spartak Moscow at the Luzhniki in a Champions League qualifier earlier this season. "Celtic trained on it dry and then they [Russians] soaked it [for the game]," McClaren said. "We have expressed to the Russians that we would like the pitch to be soaking wet when we train. We will cover all bases and there will be no excuses."

No excuses is the McClaren mantra for Russia, and one clearly designed to drive any doubt from his players' minds about the surface in Moscow – a pitch that Birmingham striker Garry O'Connor, once of Lokomotiv Moscow, said he often played on it when the surface was saturated so badly the waterline would be above his boot. Some place to play a game that for McClaren's young regime will be as important as Rome was for Glenn Hoddle in 1997 and Istanbul for Sven Goran Eriksson in October 2003.

It was good of the Estonians to be so obliging in the circumstances, especially their Danish manager, Viggo Jensen, who could no more figure out how to turn off his mobile phone for the post-match press conference – its ringing kept interrupting him – than he could set out a viable team. Any doubt the match was comfortably England's was cleared up by Taavi Rahn in the 34th minute who headed past his own goalkeeper Mart Poom from outside his own box for the third, and best, English goal.

England slowed down worryingly in the second half of the game and looked no more comfortable in the last 20 minutes when Frank Lampard came on and they switched to 4-3-3. If this is the plan for Moscow then it looked a little lame. Guus Hiddink favours three centre-backs and a 4-3-3 is supposedly a means of disrupting his team's natural shape. As an opening gambit by McClaren it looks far too obvious to fool Hiddink.

Wayne Rooney may have scored his first competitive international goal since Croatia at Euro 2004 but his partnership with Michael Owen still begs genuine questions. In their partnership, Rooney has eight goals, Owen only eight and the latter fares much better alongside the likes of Emile Heskey and Peter Crouch. Even ProZone will tell McClaren as much but having been ambushed by that statistic earlier on Friday he had formulated a more detailed explanation

"You have to look at it a bit deeper. The key thing for me was that Emile Heskey didn't score many goals, Michael scored them all. With Wayne and Michael the combination will probably produce as many goals. That's the key thing, not about individuals scoring goals it's about the team doing it. It's like Thierry Henry at Arsenal, he used to score 30 goals – if you can share that around the team then you are not going to miss a player of that ilk."

Shaun Wright-Phillips scored the first for England after an exchange with Micah Richards but was overshadowed by Joe Cole, who was excellent on the opposite wing. The injury to Ashley Cole and the booing of Frank Lampard was a reminder to McClaren that nothing is ever perfect – and when he touches down in Moscow this evening he will take nothing for granted, even the ground beneath his feet.

Goals: Wright-Phillips (11) 1-0; Rooney (32) 2-0; Rahn (og, 34) 3-0.

England (4-4-2): Robinson (Tottenham); Richards (Manchester City), Campbell (Portsmouth), Ferdinand (Manchester United), A Cole (Chelsea); Wright-Phillips (Chelsea), Gerrard (Liverpool), Barry (Aston Villa), J Cole (Chelsea); Owen (Newcastle), Rooney (Manchester United). Substitutions: Lescott (Everton) for Ferdinand (h-t); P Neville (Everton) for A Cole (49); Lampard (Chelsea) for Owen (70).

Estonia (4-4-2): Poom (Watford); Jaager (Aalesund), Stepanov (FC Khimki), Piiroja (Fredrikstad), Kruglov (Torpedo Moscow); Dmitrijev (Tallinn Levadia), Lindpere (Tromso), Rahn (FK Ekranas Panevezys), Klavan (Heracles Almelo); Kink (Tallinn Levadia), Saag (Tallinn Levadia). Substitutions: Viikmae (Tallinn Flora) for Kink (62).

Referee: N Vollquartz (Denmark).

Booked: Estonia Rahn, Lindpere.

Man of the match: J Cole.

Attendance: 86,655.

Comments