Almost 18 months after first joining the England squad, Peter Crouch should finally start a game in tandem with Wayne Rooney on Saturday. Injuries permitting - Rooney has to pass unscathed through Manchester United's match with Newcastle this afternoon - they are the favoured pairing for the European Champion-ship qualifier against Macedonia at Old Trafford.
Crouch's extraordinary inter-national scoring record (11 goals in his past 10 games) has made him a more regular choice for his country than his club, where Rafa Benitez has frequently fielded Dirk Kuyt alongside Craig Bellamy in Liverpool's attack. Crouch chose just the right time to score twice when recalled for a Champions' League tie against Galatasaray last week.
The previous night, however, Rooney was substituted after another poor performance for United against Benfica, looking lost out on the left wing. Having missed half-a-dozen games this season because of domestic and international suspension, he has been in disappointing form since returning, and has been undergoing extra training to regain some sharpness. He has not scored since the opening Premiership match at home to Fulham on 20 August.
But England's head coach, Steve McClaren, made it clear when naming his squad on Friday for the games against Macedonia and - more threateningly - away to Croatia in 10 days' time that Rooney remains an automatic choice, even with his disciplinary problems. "Wayne Rooney's a great player," he said. "Everybody's got weaknesses and baggage. Wayne is still very young. He's in the best environment at United to develop on and off the field, he's got very good people around him and he's learning all the time. What I've stressed to the England squad is that discipline and control is an integral part of international football."
Asked when Rooney's last good game for England was, the head coach paused for a long while before suggesting: "I think he's contributed whenever he's played and always given his best. It's a difficult question for me to answer to say when it was. The last six months he's not got into any rhythm through injuries and bans. He'll get that form back with games, and I can't wait for him to join up and to work with him for the next 10 days."
McClaren accompanied Uni-ted on their journey back from Lisbon and was able to chat to his former boss, Sir Alex Ferguson. Where the two men might differ is in England's desire to use Rooney in a much more positive role. "He's an all-round world-class player who anybody would love in their team," McClaren said. "We need to get him in positions where he can score more goals and create more, and give him better service in the final third."
That should mean no more lone appearances in attack, such as Rooney was forced to undertake in the fierce heat of a World Cup quarter-final against Portugal, when his growing frustration led to a red card and effectively ended England's hopes in the competition. Before the tournament he had played for just half an hour alongside Crouch, and in Germany there were only two further appearances together, for a similar period against Trinidad and Tobago, then an hour against Sweden after Michael Owen's untimely early injury.
On Saturday McClaren wants to send out English football's odd couple from the start. Of Crouch, he said: "Questions are being asked of him all the time and he keeps answering them. His goalscoring record is unbelievable. He's got touch and awareness and is improving all the time. As long as he keeps his form whenever he plays, I'm delighted. As long as he's doing that and delivering, he's very difficult to get out of the team."
Even without Owen and the unfortunate Dean Ashton (who was due to make his debut against Greece in August before breaking an ankle in training), there is useful back-up in the form of Jermain Defoe, who has produced three of his better international performances as Rooney's deputy this season, and Andy Johnson. Everton's new acquisition appears to have moved decisively ahead of Charlton's Darren Bent in the pecking order and has particularly impressed McClaren, who said: "He's the one who's really coming through. I thought he was a terrific signing for Everton, where I've seen him two or three times. He's really impressed me with his work ethic and the way he works for the team, and he's pushing the [England] strikers very, very hard and knocking on the door to get into the team."
There ought to be sufficient firepower then to give Macedonia's defence a more worrying time than in Skopje last month, when it took Crouch's volley, only just crossing the line, to beat them. Intriguingly, McClaren hinted that he might try something a little different rather than simply replacing the injured Owen Hargreaves with either Phil Neville, Ledley King or the recalled Scott Parker. A 3-5-2 formation, which England have not used since Peter Taylor's one match in charge after Kevin Keegan resigned six years ago, will be discussed with Terry Venables over the next few days. It would be one way of coping with a Macedonian attack which had the star player, Goran Pandev of Lazio, pushing right up behind two strikers. Otherwise, England will need to keep a tighter rein on Pandev than in the previous game.
Jonathan Woodgate, performing well at Middlesbrough, has spoken about how he would love to form a defensive trio with the current first-choice centre-halves, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, but he will have to wait for a return to a squad long on central defenders.
So will David Beckham, for Steven Gerrard is again pencilled in for what Liverpool's captain has called the "graveyard shift" on the right flank; Beckham must feel his hopes of a 95th cap are dead and buried, as Shaun Wright-Phillips is the beneficiary of Aaron Lennon's absence, and Jermaine Pennant is, according to McClaren, "doing very well and knocking on the door". That door remains firmly closed to Beckham.
If Lennon had not sustained an injury it would have been interesting to see whether McClaren was bold enough to start him on the right and leave out Frank Lampard, enabling Gerrard to move back into the centre. Although Lampard remains in favour (and will be trusted to take any penalties in the next two games), it has suited the new head coach to shake things up in an attempt to improve the morale of his squad, and the nation, following last summer's horrors.
"Maybe a change and a different approach was required," he said, "and that's what we've tried to bring into it. Myself, Terry Venables, changing the staff around, John Terry becoming captain, changing a little bit of the culture, making it a little bit of a club environment when they come together; we've been very fortunate that in the first three games we've had results, and it's worked.
"But we know we've got a long way to go."
Holding the fort: Who will come in for Hargreaves?
A wasted 18 months at Chelsea set back his international career just as it was beginning, with two substitute appearances in 2003-04. Has regained form and confidence since joining Newcastle and deserves another chance. May now be in pole position.
Still a strong contender after being overlooked for World Cup then recalled by Steve McClaren. Played at right-back as brother Gary's replacement in past two games, but being used as a central midfielder by Everton.
Filled the role for one World Cup game, against Ecuador, fading in the second half. Only six minutes as a sub since. The Manchester United man is a better passer than any other candidate, but not the ball-winner required against attacking opposition.
Made a good impression as holding midfielder at home to Poland a year ago, but fared less well against Argentina and missed World Cup through injury. Essentially a centre-half, who needs to concentrate on that area.
Paul Robinson (Tottenham)
Ben Foster (Manchester Utd)
Chris Kirkland (Liverpool)
Gary Neville (Manchester Utd)
Phil Neville (Everton)
Wes Brown (Manchester Utd)
John Terry (Chelsea, captain)
Rio Ferdinand (Manchester Utd)
Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)
Ledley King (Tottenham)
Ashley Cole (Arsenal)
Wayne Bridge (Chelsea)
Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham)
Michael Carrick (Manchester Utd)
Kieran Richardson (Manchester Utd)
Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)
Shaun Wright-Phillips (Chelsea)
Scott Parker (Newcastle Utd)
Wayne Rooney (Manchester Utd)
Peter Crouch (Liverpool)
Andy Johnson (Everton)
Jermain Defoe (Tottenham)Reuse content