England in Russia: Richards puts positive spin on plastic pitch battle

England must show artificial intelligence in Moscow or McClaren's days are numbered
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The Independent Online

In the immediate aftermath of England's 3-0 victory over Russia at Wembley a month ago, the stadium announcer shrieked that it was "nearly time to buy your tickets for Austria". It was explained later that this referred to the forthcoming friendly inter-national in Vienna rather than next summer's European Championship finals, but a reasonable conclusion at the time was that amid the euphoria of two successive wins, the country was getting ahead of itself, if not lurching out of control altogether.

There is much work to come, and most of it must be done in the chill of late autumn in Moscow on Wednesday, when England's mission will be complicated by the fact that this return match is to be played on an artificial surface at the Luzhniki Stadium, which is shared by two Moscow clubs, Spartak and Torpedo. Celtic had grave reservations about it despite managing a 1-1 draw with Spartak earlier this season, all the more so as it was heavily watered after they had trained there the previous night. One specific problem appears to be with the little black pellets that can either fly up when the pitch is dry, or stick to the ball when wet.

Other Russian clubs have also expressed concern. Alexander Yardoshvili, Lokomotiv Moscow's physician, says: "Whatever the artificial pitch quality is, the pressure on the ligament structure is higher than on grass. And Russian players take longer to recover after Luzhniki matches than usual." Garry O'Connor, who played for Lokomotiv, was blunt: "It's awful, horrible. It's difficult for me to say one good thing about it. If you've dived in a few times, your legs will be red- raw. Another thing to say is that you can't judge the bounce."

It will all be familiar, of course, to Steve McClaren's assistant, Terry Venables, who after co-authoring the football novel They Used to Play on Grass found life imitating art 25 years ago when his Queens Park Rangers introduced a plastic surface at Loftus Road to widespread derision. The quality of synthetic pitches has clearly improved from what has been described as "painted concrete"; similarly England, as Venables will doubtless emphasise, cannot allow any negative thoughts on the matter to affect their performance.

Nor will it if Micah Richards, the precocious Manchester City right-back preparing to win his ninth cap, is anything to go by. "Both teams have to play on it," he said. "I suppose they'll have a little bit of an advantage but with the players we've got, it hopefully won't matter. As a defender you maybe have to concentrate a little bit more, with sliding tackles and so on, but, Russia away, you just can't wait to get out there and play."

He will be spared facing Spartak's Vladimir Bystrov, who improved the visitors at Wembley after coming on as a first-half substitute but has now injured cruciate ligaments. Guus Hiddink is therefore likely to bring in the Nuremberg man Ivan Saenko, injured for the first game.

Hiddink was not alone in feeling that 3-0 was a flattering resultfor England. He said: "I'm not sure we would have lost had the referee let [Konstantin] Zyryanov's goal stand. The score would have become 1-1 and the game could have ended in a draw.

"I believe [Emile] Heskey won the match. He won most of the battles in the air, and mainly thanks to this it brought the right result for the home team." And the Moscow pitch? "Only four players [know it]. The rest of us don't play in Luzhniki that often."

England will have a training session on an identical surface tomorrow at the Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic College in Altrincham. Staff are delighted with their £600,000 pitch installed 10 months ago and paid for with the help of the Football Foundation and Trafford Council. PE staff say their pupils' skill has "noticeably increased". McClaren would just be happy for his team's skills not to be adversely affected in the most important game of his managerial career.

McClaren added: "We have to overcome these barriers. You don't know the conditions underfoot and you have to cope with it." Harsh as it may seem, how Richards and the rest cope is likely to define whether a vacancy occurs next month for a head coach to the national team.

Watch England play Russia on Sky Sports 1 on Wednesday afternoon, kick-off 4pm

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