Owen Hargreaves last night pulled out of the England squad to face Russia tomorrow, leaving, his manager, Steve McClaren without one of the two tough selection decisions he faced over the crucial Euro 2008 qualifier. Gareth Barry will keep his place in the centre of midfield but the big question over whether Emile Heskey or Peter Crouch starts in attack alongside Michael Owen has not yet been answered.
Although the same could be said of each of England's next four games, McClaren cannot afford to get the team wrong tomorrow and he gave no indications in yesterday's training session which of the two players he was leaning towards. He has to choose between the Liverpool striker, who was suspended for Saturday's 3-0 win over Israel but has 12 goals in 12 international starts, and Heskey, who helped England through the vital victory over Israel.
Hargreaves' withdrawal is a blow to the England manager, but not as severe as it might have been had Barry not performed so impressively against Israel. Hargreaves reported for duty on Sunday and had an extensive workout with the physio Gary Lewin, but a fitness test yesterday demonstrated that his thigh injury was nowhere near to healing in time for tomorrow's game.
Frank Lampard also returned to Chelsea yesterday for treatment on his thigh injury, which only served to emphasise the importance of Steven Gerrard, the last fit player from England's three first-choice central midfielders. Fit up to a point, that is. Gerrard said yesterday that he was almost free of pain in his broken big toe and, for the first time, playing under an England manager who knows his best position. The midfielder should not need a painkilling injection.
Gerrard delivered the welcome news to McClaren that, apart from the " odd ache and pain", he is fit and ready to play against Guus Hiddink's side. He also pointed out that it was McClaren's decision to move him into his more favoured role in the centre of midfield that had driven him to greater heights for England. "Against Andorra [in March] was the first time I'd been given my favoured midfield role for the national team," he said. "Under the previous manager I'd been moved around an awful lot and it was difficult to find a consistency for myself personally.
"But the manager's been great with me. Since he's taken over he's had a lot of belief in me and wants me to express myself in the way I do for Liverpool and I feel my performances have improved under Steve."
It was Gerrard's most explicit indication yet that he was wasted in the right-wing role that first Rafael Benitez and then Sven Goran Eriksson tried to shoehorn him into for club and country. Gerrard also entered into the debate over Heskey or Crouch, albeit diplomatically – both are strikers with whom he has played at Liverpool. "They are both classed as targetmen but Emile gives you a bit more physical ... maybe Peter has a slightly better technique," he said.
"They are two quality players and I am sure whoever gets the nod will do the correct job. I am really pleased for Emile. He has been out for a long time. He's stood up to the task and put in a really big performance for us and I enjoyed playing with him."
Buoyant after Saturday's win, it was up to Gerrard – ever the realist among the England players – to put in perspective a victory over An Israel side who were poor at Wembley.
"Saturday was a good performance, it was a bit better than we might expect as a minimum, but it's important not to get carried away," he said.
"It was one good performance. The idea as a team is to find more consistency, which will win us more games in the future against better opposition than Israel."
On Saturday, Gerrard was paired in midfield with Barry, the team-mate with whom he roomed at Euro 2000 when the now Liverpool captain was a callow 20-year-old suffering from homesickness.
As a realistic veteran of three international tournaments (he missed the 2002 World Cup through injury), he claimed that the current squad had the potential to be better than any he had played in before.
"I know it's cheap talk for me to sit here and say that, the most important thing is for us players to do our talking on the pitch," Gerrard said.
"But it's obvious when I'm training with these players and playing with them, you can see signs. You look around the dressing room and see the quality. We've got to be better. We've underachieved of late. It's so obvious to say that. We need to deliver for this country. The players that we've got, we've got to make the most of.
"I think with the quality we've got here that quarter-finals isn't good enough. We haven't got a God-given right. You've got to go and earn it. You can't expect to just go out on to a football pitch with star names and expect to win football matches. It's their [opposition's] cup final to play against England. Everyone wants to beat England because our league is so big. It's easy to say we're good and we're going to be good, but we have to prove it as players."Reuse content