Just when Steve McClaren thought he was on his way to building a winning team, he suddenly has the best player in the country available again. The England manager's next task? Reintegrating Wayne Rooney into an England team who have scored 10 goals in three games and picking a striker to play alongside him.
When Rooney pulls on an England shirt against Macedonia at Old Trafford on 7 October for the first time since treading on Ricardo Carvalho's nether regions in Germany there seems little doubt that the man alongside him will be Peter Crouch. With five goals in his three matches in charge, McClaren has learned to love the Liverpool striker he dropped for the first match against Greece only to reinstate him when Dean Ashton broke an ankle in training. McClaren's new England are a long way from reviving the vain hope that followed Sven Goran Eriksson's team into the World Cup finals but there does seem to be a platform for success.
Stewart Downing on the left may offer width but has not proved that he is of international class. Joe Cole, returning from injury perhaps this weekend, certainly is good enough - but does he offer the width? If there is no Aaron Lennon or Jermain Defoe in the side when Rooney returns, England will lack pace.
Whatever the problems, England's players could at least feel that they had embarked on a new era even without those that had been absent, and those, like David Beckham, who have been left behind altogether.
After three victories and no goals conceded, the ghosts of England past are not yet coming back to haunt the McClaren regime. John Terry, the captain, said: "It's important that we can prove to people that we can get results whoever is in the team.
"We want the likes of Wazza [Rooney] to get back in the squad as soon as possible - the same goes for Joe Cole - and it's going to be very interesting when they do, because with some great players not being involved recently we've still done very well. That can only be a very positive thing for the country. I've heard it said in the past that the first-team seemed set in stone. I don't know if that's the case or not, but people are coming in now and are excited about getting on, and are eager to play.
"When you've got that among the squad, when there's a real hunger there, it keeps the lads in the starting XI sharp, fresh and on their toes. You can't hide, you can't afford to let your standards slide and that's great motivation to keep doing well."
For Crouch, the battle to keep his place when Rooney returns seems to have been won - and for a player who was not even guaranteed a starting place with Liverpool this season that is an achievement. But he made it clear that, unlike the immovable hierarchy of the Eriksson years, this was a team in which players now believed they have a chance of selection. "We know that we've got Wayne coming back from suspension for the next game but I hope the other strikers have given the manager food for thought," Crouch said.
"Wayne is a top, top player and I'm sure he's going to want to come straight back into the team. It would be a hard, difficult decision to leave him out because he's a world-class talent but when the likes of Jermain and myself get the shirt, all we can do is grab it and leave the manager to make those decisions.
"We've won three games in a row without either Wayne or David [Beckham] and I think it was important to show that we could do that. They've been top, top players - David still is and Wayne is as well, but the manager hasn't included David and Wayne has yet to come in, and we've proved that we can cope without them," Crouch added.Reuse content