Points to make against Estonia but Russia is still key

The smiles are back in the England camp but Terry and Owen may sit out Estonia clash as McClaren prepares for crucial trip to Moscow
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The Independent Football

Suddenly it is smiles all round in the England camp, at least until a couple of injuries in today's bizarre list of eight Premier League games wipe them from the faces of those involved in successive 3-0 victories over Israel and Russia last month. Yet the positive way the dice are rolling for Steve McClaren at present – with unexpected implications for the longer term – might even help him to clarify one or two of the "big calls, big decisions" that he must make in team selection over the next 11 days. Nothing too serious involving metatarsals, of course; just a little twinge to prevent, say, John Terry and Michael Owen taking part in the formality of Estonia's visit to Wembley on Saturday, keeping them free of possible suspension and fatigue respectively for the game that really matters.

That one, as has been evident for months, is the return match against Russia on an artificial pitch in Moscow on Wednesday week. Beating Estonia, a side so limited that they only managed to win at home to Andorra this season with a goal in the last minute, has to be taken as a given. McClaren cannot afford to admit as much, and has understandably begun going through the motions of "we'll respect them, they're a tough team, organised, will defend well"; but if England cannot at the very least maintain their run of 3-0 victories in competitive games, which included a stroll in Tallinn last June, then optimism will be in short supply for the Moscow flight.

What is in danger of being lost amid the euphoria of last month's routine victory over the toothless Israelis and flattering scoreline against Guus Hiddink's Russians, is that one false step – or even one unfortunate bounce – on the Luzhniki Stadium's unfamiliar surface, changes everything. Unless England avoid defeat there, they will almost certainly not be going to the European Championship finals next summer.

Where would that leave McClaren? The assumption until now has been that there would have to be another change of manager. Imagine, however, an unlucky single-goal defeat to Russia, followed by a resounding if vain victory against the group winners Croatia at Wembley; skipper Terry announces that the boys are all behind Steve; Arsène Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Hiddink repeat that they are not interested in the job. For the first time it is possible to envisage some support from inside football as well as the general public to allow McClaren to continue what might be seen as improving work.

The man himself believes a corner was turned on a horrible night in Barcelona when England shrugged off abuse of themselves and their leader in defeating Andorra by the first of those 3-0 margins. Now he talks of the progress that he was always confident of bringing about after replacing Sven Goran Eriksson, belated as it has been: "It's not just the last two games. We have been doing this consistently.

"Andorra was a kind of watershed and since then, we've sort of come together and I think we have always had that quality and mentality. It takes time to get over a World Cup, build a team, change some of the things you want to change and to drum in to people. Especially in international football when you don't get them very often. What we're developing is a way I want to see this England team play. We're still not there yet and the next two games are pressure games, not just for the team but for everybody including myself."

Making the right decisions on those "big calls" regarding personnel will be crucial to the outcome, which is why having one or two of them made for him would not be such a bad thing. After all, it was only because of injuries to Owen Hargreaves, Frank Lampard, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney that a new, balanced midfield and attack emerged to defeat Israel and Russia. Gareth Barry proved the perfect foil to Steven Gerrard, as did the physical Emile Heskey to the little predator Owen, both supplied well from the flanks by the club pairing of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole. Mercifully, the Beckham issue can be left aside until Croatia's visit next month at the earliest, when he hopes to be back in contention. If Lampard proves his fitness at Bolton today, however, there is not only the old conundrum of whether he can dovetail with Gerrard, but a new one of whether anyone performing as well as Barry did deserves to be dropped and the consequent effect on squad spirit.

"That's a consideration," McClaren said, "but that's football, players know that and that's a manager's job. We have to make big calls and big decisions. These are the issues I've got running about in my mind. That's my job, I've got to make decisions and stand or fall by those decisions, pull people in or leave people out. No player has a right to be guaranteed a place in the team."

Hargreaves is not available, which is regrettable in terms of the Moscow game, all the more so since the injured Michael Carrick cannot be the defensive anchorman there either. No Heskey too, and how sensible would it be to demand two games from Owen so soon after his groin operation, when Rooney and Peter Crouch are available to terrorise Estonia? Then there are the yellow cards hanging over Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and Joe Cole, every one of whom would be a big miss if they were to collect a ban for the Russia game.

Big calls, big decisions. Might these two games taken together present the most difficult selection McClaren has had to make in his eventful 15 months in charge? "Sat here at the moment, yes it probably is."

Watch England against Estonia on BBC1 next Saturday, kick-off 3pm