Meetings to sort out the fixture schedules of qualifying groups for major international tournaments are often more fiercely fought than some of the matches. Fabio Capello was happy to play away to Croatia in the most difficult game of England's World Cup section early in the season, believing that players would be fitter and fresher than at any other time. Alas, he finds himself naming a squad tomorrow without at least two of his most influential men.
Hardly had Capello stopped singing Steven Gerrard's praiseson Wednesday than Liverpool decided their captain needed surgery on a troublesome groin. Owen Hargreaves, Capello added, had "a very important job" asthe only natural defensive mid-fielder available; whereupon he was ruled out of contention for the opening group games against Andorra next Saturday and Croatia four days later.
Another United midfielder, Michael Carrick, has no chance of being fit; his club captain, Gary Neville, whose experience would be a welcome substitute for Wes Brown's impetuosity, has not played a full 90 minutes this season or last; and Michael Owen, who has never yet started a game for Capello, has mainly been coming off the bench for Newcastle. "I need fit players," the manager insisted. After three more Premier League games this afternoon, he may find there are even fewer of them.
There will be other changes too from the squad who scrambled a late draw against the Czech Republic, as the goalkeeper Joe Hart and Theo Walcott have both been selected for Friday's Under-21 qualifying match at Wembley against Portugal. So has Tom Huddlestone, but Aston Villa's Ashley Young has not, so if he effectively replaces Gerrard, there is a berth for an extrastriker. Owen, Dean Ashton and Peter Crouch will all be competing for it, with Owen the favourite as long as he has suffered no reaction from yesterday evening's game at Arsenal.
It should not, of course, matterwho plays against Andorra, who when beaten 5-0 at Old Trafford in Steve McClaren's first competitive match ranked as possibly the worst side England had ever met. They failed to have a shot at goal and were happy to keep the score down to five, two each coming from Crouch and Jermain Defoe, who are unlikelyto get the chance of a repeat despite now being clubmates.
The return game in Barcelona was McClaren's lowest point until the decisive home defeat by Croatia: the team were booed from the 20th minute onwards, sent goalless to the dressing room at half-time with abuse being hurled at them and the manager, and only saving the game thanks to Gerrard's refusal to be cowed.
McClaren's successor, apparently astonished by the level of press censure, says he is relaxed about the widely echoed criticisms by Portsmouth's Harry Redknapp, the English managerwith most players in the squad. "Usually in Spain, Italy, the [club] managers don't speak about the national team," Capello said. "But here I think it is different. Everyone's got an opinion." He will hear many more of them if the World Cup campaign begins with anything less than the easiest of victories on Saturday.