Talking a good game but England clutch at straws

McClaren claims 'we deserve to qualify' but forces are now beyond his control and he is left needing a massive favour
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Staying at a hotel called the Swiss in Moscow last month did not prove the desired omen in helping England to qualify for next summer's European Championship finals in Switzerland and Austria. Nor will a friendly on Friday evening in Vienna now be of any relevance unless Russia, 2-1 winnersover Steve McClaren's side,slip up badly away to Israel the following day.

When opposition was sought as a warm-up fixture for England's final qualifying game, at home to Croatia, an opportunity to play in the Ernst Happel Stadium, where the Euro 2008 final will be staged on 29 June, must have seemed heaven-sent. Alas, the football gods do not like to be taken for granted.

They refused to be mocked three years ago, when David James gave an interview before a World Cup match in the same stadium, emphasising how the "Calamity" days were behind him; next day he threw in a late equaliser to get England's campaign off to an unexpectedly sticky start.

The normally useful ploy of visiting a tournament venue the year before the main event will look similarly presumptuous if Guus Hiddink's Russians gain their expected victory in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening. That will take them to 24 points, one ahead of England, with the formality of a final game against Andorra to come on the night that Croatia visit Wembley. From hoping that "Israel or Macedonia can do us a favour", as he has been doing ever since losing in Moscow, McClaren will be reduced to saying the same of Andorra (played 10, lost 10, goals 2, against 39 in the group so far). To envisage an alternative combination of circumstances, in which Croatia somehow lose in Macedonia before submittingby two goals at Wembley, isgrasping at equally flimsy straws.

In naming his squad on Friday for the forthcoming double-header, however, the head coach was never likely to walk into the room waving a white handkerchief (something the Wembley crowd may consider its prerogative in a Spanish-style farewell on Wednesday week). Instead, he understandably drew on all his training in the power of positive thinking to emphasise that England "deserve to qualify", that the team "will go on to be successful" and that "I'm the man that can take us forward".

There is clearly another man who he believes can do so, at least as far forward as next summer. Hence a much-derided trip to Los Angeles last week for face-to-face confirmation that David Beckham is still strong of both spirit and flesh, rather than allowing the flesh-pots of Californication to have diluted either.The head coach was reassured by what he saw, which was not surprising to anyone who believes that Beckham, what-ever his perceived faults, remains in love with the game of football.

"If you know Becks well, he likes proving people wrong,"McClaren said. "I think he still has a lot to prove. He was disappointed with being injured in his first season over there and he's failed to capitalise on the impact he made on coming back for England this summer.

"He wants to. He's itching to prove that his injury is all right and that he's match-fit. I've said to him, 'I can't guarantee you a place in the team but you're in the squad'."

Had Shaun Wright-Phillips, an occasional understudy in the Eriksson years, made more of his subsequent opportunities, or Aaron Lennon proved less injury-prone, the Football Association might have saved the air fare. Indeed, Beckham would never have appeared again after his tearful farewell at the World Cup. As it is, Wright-Phillips and David Bentley complete a trio of right-wingers in the squad to match the three left-backs (five with Joleon Lescott and Phil Neville).

"I felt players could come in and take over that mantle on the right," McClaren admitted. "I didn't find that was the case, and the way David responded and was playing for Real Madrid, there was no hesitation in bringing him back [last spring]. David's different in that these are big games and he's a big-gameplayer. You pick the best 25 or 26 players you can and he's in that."

He still was when Eriksson left 15 months ago, and a spell as a substitute would have tested Beckham's motivation equally well, but McClaren's new broom felt some sweeping was necessary and duly brushed him aside. No apologies on that score: "Hindsight is a fantastic thing but I've no regrets doing what I did. I wouldn't say he's proved me wrong. He's proved exactly what I thought his reaction would be. We had to go through that process to get the best out of the team, which I believe we're doing at the moment."

Whether or not Beckham steps out against Austria and Croatia, the side will clearly miss John Terry and Rio Ferdinand at one end of the pitch and Wayne Rooney at the other. McClaren's faith in Micah Richards as an international centre-half appears to have survived a ghastly performance in Manchester City's 6-0 defeat by Chelsea recently; Rooney's injury makes a combination of Michael Owen and Peter Crouch the obvious one in attack.

But whether there is any relevance to either game continues to depend on forces beyond the control of any Englishman. Israel, of course, are making the right noises about giving their all against the Russians, even though they have no chance of qualifying themselves after producing such a feeble display at Wembley two months ago. Their goalkeeper, Dudu Awat, said: "We have to beat Russia first and foremost for ourselves and our fans. We haven't qualified and so we need to give them something to cheer about. But if it helps England to qualify, that will be great. All the Israeli players love the England team and the Premier League and we are going to do everything we can to help them.

"It's very surprising that they are in this position and it's quite strange that they are relying on a country such as Israel to help them qualify. I can't quite believe England are in this situation to be honest, especially with the quality they have. I thought they would win the group very easily, with Russia and Croatia fighting it out for second. But that's not the way it's materialised."

Yossi Benayoun is doubtful for the contest after hurting his groin in Liverpool's game against Fulham last night, but the injured striker Robert Collauti is relishing a return. He has been badly missed, with Chelsea's Ben Sahar proving too green a replacement. Collauti said: "We need to start building for the next qualifying campaign, so a win against Russia is very important. If we can help England out that would be great. But a draw would be just as good for them, I think they would be satisfied with that."

"Satisfied" is something ofan understatement.

Watch England's friendly in Austria on Sky Sports 1 on Friday night, kick-off 8pm

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