McClaren gambles by bringing Heskey back from wilderness

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The Independent Online

One England comeback and one reprieve: Steve McClaren will put his faith in Emile Heskey and Paul Robinson in today's must-win Euro 2008 qualifier against Israel. The Wigan Athletic striker has been selected to start alongside Michael Owen in a reprise of a partnership that last led England's attack in a friendly against Croatia four years ago.

The decision to bring back Heskey, despite some indifferent performances in training this week, was fairly academic for the England manager, given that he is set on the "big-man, small-man" strike partnership to break down the stubborn Israelis – and Peter Crouch is suspended. Deciding on Robinson in goal over David James was a closer call, although McClaren claimed yesterday that he had made the decision within days of last month's Germany friendly but had wanted to see the Tottenham Hotspur man's "reaction".

The one doubt hanging over the England team when they wake up this morning is the fitness of Owen Hargreaves, who McClaren said will have a late test on his troublesome thigh problem. The interesting contingency plan if he does not come through is to play Gareth Barry in his place. The Aston Villa captain has jumped ahead of Michael Carrick in the hierarchy in centre midfield and could well get his long-awaited chance for England. He has not played a competitive fixture for his country since against Finland in October 2000.

McClaren confirmed that Steven Gerrard would also be fit to play, as revealed in The Independent yesterday. He has trained without a painkilling injection for two days and the Liverpool captain will play without any injection to the broken big toe on his right foot. The only needles will be for John Terry who will require a Marcain painkilling injection in the broken little toe of his right foot. The relief to McClaren that Gerrard will now feature was evident.

He has kept his goalkeeper waiting, but McClaren went public yesterday on his decision to back Robinson after his spot of bother against Germany. It was the only aspect of his team selection that he was prepared to divulge and it was clearly designed to give his embattled goalkeeper maximum confidence before today's game. The Spurs player will know he is on his last chance now and the stakes could not be higher.

"I was delighted with his [Robinson's] reaction," McClaren said. "At this level, players will make mistakes, players are under pressure to deliver. In adversity, that's when the true character comes out. Robbo reacted very, very well to it. I have been delighted by the way he trained this week.

"I can never guarantee a player a starting position, only for the next game. I can't guarantee him the one after that. It goes on performance. But it is one principle that I have got, especially with goalkeepers, I stick with them. It was my decision and I wanted to see the reaction of the three goalkeepers together. I wanted to make it a tough week for all the players – make it a difficult week, so that Saturday is easy.

"I told Paul last night. I have every confidence in him, trust in him and he's in goal. He was obviously relieved, delighted. I more or less made the decision two or three days after the Germany game, when I looked at the game and took all the hysteria away to look at it sensibly and calmly."

It is not the most glamorous international that the new Wembley has hosted but today's game is certain to be the tensest yet. After one draw and one defeat at the new £757m stadium, this is the game in which England simply cannot afford to drop points.

There is a pleasing balance in his team's shape in midfield, where Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole occupy the wings and Gerrard is paired in the centre with a naturally defensive midfielder. As usual it is hard to quibble with McClaren's selection, although there remain doubts over Michael Owen's form, but past experience tells us that with England that can be no guarantee of success.

There is simply no telling how Heskey will respond when confronted with 90,000 expectant faces at the new Wembley, especially after three years in the relative backwaters of Birmingham City and Wigan. He is the logical pick for what he offers in terms of size and power, but his first few contributions will be vital. Should he struggle, the 29-year-old's confidence could fail and the tone for the evening will be set – the consequences for England might be disastrous.

It was not just the usual psychobabble that McClaren spun yesterday when he called upon his team to be "brave enough" to take risks against Israel. "Bravery sometimes can mean putting your head in where others won't," he said. "But the other definition of bravery is taking the ball when others won't, making a run into the box when you might fail, taking a shot when you might fail. That's the kind of bravery we want from our players."

That and some patience from the Wembley fans. So far this season, even in the defeat to Germany, there have only been the rumblings of discord like some distant tremor. That could grow ever closer today if England's fans find themselves contemplating another appalling disappointment and the dreadful sense that Euro 2008 will be a tournament that takes place without them. Failure to qualify for Austria and Switzerland will not just be a failure for now, it will be one that stings right through to next June as the European Championship is decided in England's absence.

"If we perform at the tempo which we should, we'll keep the crowd on our side," McClaren said. "But it's important to stress – and I'll say it to the players and I'll say it to everyone – that it might not be the first 20 minutes that we score. It might be the last minute."

Group E

Fixtures: Today England v Israel, Russia v Macedonia 12 Sept Andorra v Croatia, England v Russia, Macedonia v Estonia; 13 Oct England v Estonia; 17 Oct Croatia v Russia, Macedonia v Andorra, Russia v England; 17 Nov Andorra v Estonia, Israel v Russia, Macedonia v Croatia; 21 Nov Andorra v Russia, England v Croatia, Israel v Macedonia.