The day of destiny for Steve McClaren's Euro 2008 qualifying campaign looms ever closer, but the news keeps getting worse for the England manager. No sooner had he named his squad yesterday than he was told that Frank Lampard is out of the two games against Israel and Russia that could seal England's fate.
As well as the thigh injury to Lampard, sustained in the closing stages of a Chelsea training session yesterday, McClaren also faces a battle with Rafael Benitez over the fitness of Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool manager said yesterday that his captain would not be fit for the Israel game on 8 September while McClaren said Gerrard wanted to play in the match. Given the injury to Lampard, McClaren can not afford to lose the Liverpool captain as well.
It was a bitter blow to lose a stalwart like Lampard just as McClaren was coming to terms with building a team from the players left to him after injuries and suspensions. But even with him in the squad there was a difficult selection decision to make.
Now the England manager will not have to decide whether to leave out one from Lampard, Gerrard and Owen Hargreaves, although his team is by no means clear. Ashley Young and David Bentley were the new call-ups yesterday to a squad that is already without first-teamers Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Peter Crouch, suspended for the Israel game. On top of that
Ledley King, Aaron Lennon, Wayne Bridge and Darren Bent are also injured. With Lampard out, McClaren would be entitled to feel that the fates are conspiring against him as he attempts to rescue the Euro 2008 qualification campaign.
The next battle will be over Gerrard's fitness. Benitez drew the battle lines yesterday when he said that Gerrard would not be able to play for his club against Derby today – or for England – without a painkilling injection. Asked if he wanted Gerrard to miss the Israel game, Benitez replied "that is the idea".
He may find the England manager much less pliable. McClaren intimated that Gerrard had personally assured him that he would be joining up with the England squad on Monday and wanted to play in both games. "Believe you me, Steven Gerrard is a strong enough character to indicate to me that he wants to play and he wants to be involved," McClaren said. "He wants to play in the next two games for England."
McClaren was clearly in no mood to be bullied by the Liverpool manager, or any other manager in the Premier League with so much resting on the game against Israel. Benitez implored him "not to take risks" with Gerrard's fitness, but it now seems that only a serious deterioration in the player's fitness will stop him from playing.
"When you talk about the issue of club and country, the players have to have a passion to play for their country," McClaren said. "No one epitomises that more than Steven Gerrard. He always turns up – as he wanted to against Germany – and we need that type of character. If there is a risk, then the medical teams will get together.
"We felt it was too much of a risk the last time, but we will liaise with Rafa Benitez and the medical team, but the decisions will be made by the player, by ourselves and the doctors. These are important games. There is a certain flexibility when it comes to friendlies but now we are into the qualifiers. The players, myself and the whole country wants us to be in Switzerland and Austria next summer and that's all that counts."
McClaren has come to rely on Gerrard who sustained a hairline fracture to his foot in pre-season and feels that he gave Benitez the benefit of the doubt when Liverpool played him in the Premier League game against Chelsea but withdrew him from the Germany friendly this month. The militancy around McClaren is now reminiscent of the hardline mood that gripped his predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson in the World Cup finals over the Rooney injury.
Those close to McClaren say that the England manager does not want to look back in November on a failed campaign and wish that he had pushed harder to get his best players – whatever their fitness. He was philosophical about the loss of Beckham to a knee ligament injury which could even rule him out of the Euro 2008 qualifiers against Estonia at Wembley and Russia in Moscow in October.
"It was a difficult schedule [for Los Angeles Galaxy and England] but it was something that he [Beckham] thought he could handle," McClaren said. "I can't comment on his personal situation and how he handled it or whether he was playing injured or what. All I can say was that it was always going to be a difficult schedule. He felt he could handle it and unfortunately we are not going to see evidence of that because he is injured."
Having seen little promise from Alan Smith in the Brazil and Germany friendlies –and seemingly having lost confidence in Jermain Defoe – it is hard to see who McClaren will pair Michael Owen with in the absence of Crouch against Israel. Smith last scored in the Premier League in November 2005, Owen a month later. Andy Johnson has not scored this season for Everton and his last League goal was in March.
"I am concerned, but it is a situation we have to deal with," McClaren said. "We also have midfield players who can score goals in Stevie G. It was great to see Michael Owen looking sharp and getting a goal [against Barnsley] on Wednesday night."
As far as his embattled goalkeeper Paul Robinson was concerned, McClaren hinted that he might be making the big decision to drop him in favour of David James, saying for the first time that he made a mistake for Germany's first goal at Wembley last month. The 21-year-old Young, he said, is in the squad to test his potential. "We want those players to be involved with the squad as quickly as possible," McClaren said. "We might not see him play over the 10 days, but we can see his quality, his character and his reaction. That will give us an indication of his future. If he does that well, who knows?"Reuse content