'We must be ruthless against Estonia,' says Gerrard

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Steven Gerrard refers to them as the "bad times", the days when England flattered to deceive, failed to find "consistency". He is only talking about a few games ago but England's stand-in captain was adamant yesterday that those "difficult days" have been consigned to the past.

"I'm talking about when we would win one game and then put in a bad performance and not get the result in a game we should win," Gerrard explained. "We've come off the back of two big wins and need to move forward."

The thumping 3-0 wins over Israel and Russia at Wembley last month appear to represent a pivotal moment for England in their attempts to qualify for Euro 2008. "We're in the driving seat," said Gerrard, who will lead the side today in the absence of the injured John Terry.

The six points have helped blur memories of the defeat in Croatia and the draws with Macedonia and Israel that almost derailed the campaign. "I just think the teams that do achieve big things and get big rewards do also go through difficult times," Gerrard said. "The bad times we've had as a team, we have improved on them and I don't think you will see us going back to those days. Everyone is confident and looking forward."

There has, however, been a remarkable consistency of results in the past four qualifiers – all have been won by the same scoreline with Gerrard himself sparking that sequence by scoring twice away to Andorra last March.

He also draws much of his belief from the exploits of the England rugby union team who this evening play their World Cup semi-final against France. "They've had a rough ride to get to where they are," Gerrard acknowledged. "I'm not jealous. As an Englishman it's great to see the other sports teams doing well."

Today's opponents, Estonia, should not prove taxing. "We've got to be flying out of the blocks and trying to win the game as early as we can," Gerrard, who will win his 60th cap, said. "We don't want to give the Estonians any hope. We want to kill them and be ruthless with them." Gerrard refers to that as the "English way" – high tempo, "choking" teams and "finishing them off early".

There have been some subtle shifts in the balance of the team, not least with Gareth Barry likely to remain as Gerrard's partner in the centre of midfield, despite Frank Lampard's return from injury. "They are both great midfielders," Gerrard said before revealing exactly what he feels should happen. "Gareth was probably man of the match in the last two games and he might feel hard done by if he was dropped."

Playing in the centre, for club and country, is what the 27-year-old himself has craved. "My favourite position," Gerrard said.

Terry may be absent but Wayne Rooney returns and Gerrard thought the Manchester United forward too harsh on his own England performances, blaming much of the underachievement on injury. But Rooney's appraisal was also evidence of his "mental strength". Gerrard, too, has that. But something else is driving him. "The thought of underachieving," he said. "If we don't achieve something it will be a nightmare."