Parker penned in as answer to muddle in middle

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The Independent Football

Scott Parker has been identified by Steve McClaren as the latest potential saviour for England's malfunctioning midfield and could be set to take on the crucial holding role against Croatia tomorrow. The Newcastle captain trained in the position yesterday and would form the defensive core of a five-man midfield in a new 3-5-2 formation.

It has been more than two and a half years since Parker won the last of his two England caps as a substitute in the friendly defeat to Sweden in March 2004 and he has never started a friendly for his country, let alone figured in a competitive match. But the test against Croatia is critical for McClaren and his adoption of a new system to combat Slaven Bilic's side's wingers requires a tackling presence at its very heart.

Although the England players have not yet been told the team, their training session yesterday hinted at a radical new future that includes a role for Gary Neville at right wing-back. Nothing is yet decided but it now appears increasingly likely that the two sessions last week ahead of the Macedonia game playing in the 3-5-2 formation were more in preparation for Zagreb than Saturday's disappointing 0-0 draw.

In McClaren's bold new plan it would seem that his centre-backs Ledley King, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry will play behind a five-man midfield that includes Parker, Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick in a central three. Carrick has been granted a reprieve following his unremarkable performance against Macedonia and, in the absence of Steven Gerrard, there is still no room, it would appear, for Shaun Wright-Phillips.

While it has not been definitely decided that 3-5-2 is the preferred option, the new system represents a serious departure for England and a tactical gamble by McClaren so early in his tenure. It also relies upon Ferdinand, who missed Saturday's match with a back spasm, and King, who has struggled with a knee niggle, coming through their injury problems. England have not played the system from the start of a match since Peter Taylor's one game in charge of the side in 2000 against Italy.

From the ruins of Saturday's draw with Macedonia, it was evident that England required a more combative performer in the absence of Owen Hargreaves in the centre of midfield. Parker was never a favourite with Eriksson who picked him as a substitute for the two friendlies against Denmark and Sweden in the build-up to Euro 2004 but never considered the player for that tournament or the summer's World Cup finals.

The question of England playing 3-5-2 against 4-4-2 has not gone unnoticed in Croatia, where Slaven Bilic's assistant Aljosa said yesterday that their opponents would not "dare" change system for such an important match. "McClaren won't be trying 3-5-2, not against us, he wouldn't dare," Asanovic said.

"I respect England but we are not afraid of them. Our team is good and we can do a great job."

It is not quite a question of dare, simply that there are fewer options for McClaren to choose from without Gerrard, Hargreaves, Joe Cole or Aaron Lennon to select. Wright-Phillips may have done enough in his substitute's performance on Saturday to justify consideration for a starting place but his anonymity at club level for Chelsea does not count in his favour.

Switching to three centre-backs radically changes the complexion of McClaren's defence, a defence that has not yet conceded in four games under their new manager.

If Paul Robinson keeps a clean sheet tomorrow he will equal Gordon Banks' record of seven consecutive matches without conceding a goal that ended with a penalty from Eusebio in the 1966 World Cup semi-final.

Yesterday, McClaren's assistant Terry Venables - who has escaped largely unscathed for his role in Saturday's draw - said that England had suffered a "setback" with the draw against Macedonia but had to rise to the challenge tomorrow.

He said: "Now we go to Croatia and we've got to make sure that we are going there and looking forward to taking up the challenge. It is a very big game and a big challenge. We know they have not lost a home qualifier and that record speaks for itself. It will be interesting for us to see where we stand after [the] game. That will be our fourth game in the group and our last qualifier of the year. After that, we'll really be able to assess where we are and how we are doing.

"I think we have already picked up some of the areas where we can improve and we must learn all the time. But we must learn quickly.

"We have had a setback and now there is only one way to look and that is forward. We've got to take up the challenge and look forward to it," Venables added.