Johnson set to make first start but injury list climbs to eight

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The Independent Football

Steve McClaren could be forgiven for thinking that recent results have convinced his England players that their national service is not such a good idea after all. Aaron Lennon yesterday became the eighth man to withdraw his services for tomorrow's friendly against the Netherlands in Amsterdam - although Andy Johnson looks set for his first international start.

So depleted were England's ranks during a session at Arsenal's Hertfordshire training ground that an unknown 19-year-old on the club's books was deputed to make up the numbers. Matthew Connolly was welcomed into the group by McClaren himself and the reserve defender could at least reflect that he was not the first Arsenal teenager to train with England's finest without having made a single senior club appearance.

Lennon's withdrawal with a knee injury was the latest in a succession of pull-outs through injury that included Gary Neville, Scott Parker, Jermaine Jenas, Stewart Downing, Ledley King and Darren Bent while the goalkeeper Chris Kirkland will be attending the birth of his child. The original 28-man squad is now at 21 after Manchester United's Kieran Richardson was called up as Jenas' replacement.

The wider question, however, is how will they play? The diabolical 3-5-2 system that played such a key role in the 2-0 defeat to Croatia last month will not be making a return and Lennon's injury would appear to make McClaren's midfield choices easier. The brilliant Tottenham winger would have a strong case for his first England start on the right wing but that role now seems likely to fall to Steven Gerrard again.

Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Peter Crouch were excused training yesterday after Liverpool's 3-0 defeat to Arsenal on Sunday so McClaren was also unable even to train in the formation that he hopes to deploy with his fit players. Johnson is the favourite to start alongside Wayne Rooney in attack with Carragher the first choice to replace Gary Neville at right-back.

Despite an inauspicious performance against Croatia, Michael Carrick is likely to hold his central midfield place alongside Frank Lampard by default. Joe Cole should make his first return to the left side of the midfield since the World Cup finals. It does not promise to be revolutionary but even in a friendly that is losing significance with every withdrawal, McClaren desperately needs a decent performance.

He will be spared the attacking threat of Arsenal's Robin Van Persie who will be absent attending the birth of his first child. The Netherlands coach, Marco van Basten, will also be without Ajax's Wesley Sneijder who is replaced by Milan's Clarence Seedorf - a stark demonstration of the depth of quality in McClaren's opposition. The England manager had to make do with United's underachieving Richardson.

Today will be the first chance for McClaren to outline his thoughts on the Euro 2008 qualification campaign since he cancelled his much publicised fact-finding trip to Seattle in the wake of defeat to Croatia. His press conference will be in the same Amsterdam hotel that John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their 1969 honeymoon peace protest in bed. Four years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson launched United's last title-winning season at a press briefing in the same hotel with the stirring criticism that his players had become complacent on new generous contracts.

Some act to follow, and McClaren will have to do better than yesterday's interview with the radio station talkSPORT in which he seemed still unsure about how to deploy his midfield. Trotting out a now familiar line about "blend and balance" he said that the "midfield area" had "always been, for me, the enigma and may continue to be". "It is something where we are trying things and hoping to resolve," he added.

Sooner rather than later would be the Football Association's preference. McClaren has been accused of stage managing his press conferences in the past - although his "evolution not revolution" line in August was, unfortunately, first uttered in an Alan Partridge show nine years earlier. Today, McClaren will have to take on his sternest critics - the written media - for the first time since the Zagreb debacle, and he will need to stand up for himself.

Up until the shell-shocked aftermath of that night in the Maksimir stadium, he had done a good job of handling confrontation.

Had Lennon been fit it would have given him a difficult choice: dare he play the 19-year-old on the right and pair Gerrard with Lampard in the centre - a combination that never worked consistently under Sven Goran Eriksson? The decision to drop one of those two has not yet arrived but one more bad night and the time for tough choices will be upon him.

Injury doubts: Squad withdrawals

* STUART DOWNING

Age 22; Middlesbrough midfielder; Groin injury

Played against West Ham at weekend, went off in 90th minute

* SCOTT PARKER

Age 26; Newcastle midfielder; Groin injury

Played all 90 minutes against Manchester City

* LEDLEY KING

Age 26; Tottenham defender; Knee injury

Played all 90 minutes against Reading

* AARON LENNON

Age 19; Tottenham midfielder; Knee injury

Played all 90 minutes against Reading

* DARREN BENT

Age 22; Charlton striker; Hamstring

Played all 90 minutes against Wigan

* CHRIS KIRKLAND

Age 25; Wigan goalkeeper; Leave of absence due to expected baby

Played all 90 minutes against Charlton

* GARY NEVILLE

Age 31; Manchester United defender; Calf injury

Substituted at half-time against Blackburn

* JERMAINE JENAS

Age 23; Tottenham midfielder; Calf injury

Played 90 minutes against Reading

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