England one win away from qualification; England one win away from World Champions
Steve McClaren has steered England thus far through five (not four as stated by ITV teletext) consecutive 3-0 wins in the last five qualifiers. He has hard a difficult job of doing so since taking over from Sven Goran-Eriksson on the 1st August last year, dropping David Beckham from the captaincy, dropping Beckham from the squad, entering the qualifiers and emerging with a 5-0 win against Andorra at Old Trafford, unbeaten with one win out of back-to-back games against Macedonia. We were expected to find it tough in Skopje and scored the one goal to win; we were expected to quiet the Macedonians in our own backyard and settled leaving Old Trafford with a no-score draw.
We flew to Zagreb to handle Croatia, the pitch was rough in comparison to the Premier League, the climate frosty (the crowd more than the temperature), a new formation of 3-5-2, Jamie Carragher at right-back, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Gary Neville at right-wing, Scott Parker between Michael Carrick and Frank Lampard, Joe Cole left, Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch upfront. We could not perform and Croatia were settled. Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva headed in Niko Kovac's cross on the hour; Neville's back pass to Paul Robinson hit a divet on the way and skipped over the Spurs keeper's right foot to trickle in. How in heaven could anyone blame Robinson for the goal, I will never understand.
That being that, if memory serves me correctly, England were hovering in fourth place, points behind top spot and in some concern of failing to produce enough to qualify, much less top the group. It was a must to get three points off the Israelis in Tel Aviv's Ramat-Gan stadium, yet we failed again to score, much less win and the pressure began to increase. In a 4-4-2 set-up, Gerrard on the left in the absence of Joe Cole, Lampard and Owen Hargreaves centre, Rooney and Andrew Johnson upfront, Aaron Lennon was replaced by Stewart Downing, moving Gerrard right, Jermaine Defoe was given only 10mins normal time as a sub for Johnson. It wasn't good. If you want to change for an impact, give a player more than that with a sub around the 60-65 minute mark.
Next was the eastern Pyrenees, bordering between France and Spain, to meet Andorra in the Estadi Olímpico de Montjuic in Barcelona. Potentially our worst match for a first half that brought jeers, sneers upon the starting XI, the bench and McClaren. Rooney was being targeted for provocation, earned himself a booking and a suspension for the next qualifier. The second half brought more life from England, Gerrard scoring twice before Defoe's introduction on the hour brought more chances, one of which was goal-bound before debut David Nugent made sure. In Tallinn, England score three again via a Joe Cole volley from a Crouch flick, a Crouch header and a Michael Owen header from Beckham's crosses, back in the side. We still had more work to do.
New Wembley, first qualifier, Israel the guests. This time Tal Ben Haim was not as formidable a defender as he was in Tel Aviv. Captain Youssi Benayoun was their main threat with his work rate, but England had brought new flavour. Injuries dictated selection to a degree, with Emile Heskey coming in to provide strength and pace in partnership with Owen, while Lampard's absence meant Gerrard linked up with Aston Villa's Gareth Barry. Knowing each other good from the younger England years, their fluidity through communication and understanding found them both interchanging between holding back and attacking. Shaun Wright-Phillips side-footed from J Cole's cross, Barry's firm pass was gathered and hit on the turn by Owen and Barry again provided the corner for Micah Richards to head in his first international goal.
Wembley again, this time the Russians were in town, our first encounter. Heskey started again and again he provided openings with his strength and pace. Barry started too after Israel and his corner went over Terry for Owen to gather and score. Russia's Konstantin Zhyrianov was harshly judged to have handballed on his way to scoring, we were fortunate. Heskey's flick-on found Owen in space and he deposited no.2. Ferdinand stepped up in attack and with Owen finding him, the Man Utd defender dinked then shot for no.3. Then on Saturday Estonia visited Wembley and England notced a five consecutive 3-0 victory courtesy of Wright-Phillips, a deflected Rooney effort and a superb own goal by Taavi Rahn with a header from outside the box.
As a result, with our next match importantly against the Russians in Moscow on Wednesday than anyone else, and they having a game in hand, England are now one win away from qualification and second in the table a point behind Croatia. Russia are third with eighteen points. Can we get three points on Wednesday, with the Macedonians holding Croatia in November, leaving us to continue a winning Wembley streak in our final game with the Croatians? Anything is possible, particularly now. Rooney and Lampard have returned to fitness, Micah Richards has slotted in well. We are looking good, overall.
However I must add that the jeers or boos when Lampard was brought on for Owen on 80mins have brought some confusion and undoubtedly disgust in its aftermath. The point to establish thoroughly is whether it was aimed at Lampard directly or at the change for a striker when Crouch and Defoe were on the bench. If it is at Lampard, I would like to know why, other than he is a Chelsea player or if people are disgruntled with his England performances recently. I interpret it was at the change, as it pushed Lampard wide right, Barry left, Gerrard central, Rooney up alone with J Cole and SWP either side. We know Rooney does not enjoy the lone striker role but instead dropping back to pick up and go, or pick up, give and then go. Rooney likes to be in the thick of the attack as quick as possible so leaving him alone either means he is not there to pass to or he remains isolated and potentially bored. Wide right is not Lampard's good position either.
Maybe the fans felt another striker with Rooney would be more ideal, for the second half petered on with little for excitement other than Gerrard's great chance to score but inexplicably passing weakly to J Cole when in a better position to advance and strike. Giving Crouch or Defoe a run out for 10mins+ seemed a better idea than introducing another midfielder.
Rugby World Cup
I have followed England through the Women's World Cup and also through the Rugby one. Devastated after the South Africa defeat, we went on to win our games including the quarter-final against main threat Australia (just), and then France who had to get over the All Blacks (just) to the semi-final. It deserves a mention here as England went ahead early through Josh Lewsey but the French hit back with Lionel Beauxis' two penalties to bring half time at 5-6 to France. France went further ahead as Beauxis scored another penalty before Jonny Wilkinson scored one of his own to keep England a point behind at 8-9. Wave after wave of French pressure built up as England kept backs to the wall and refused to be scored over anymore.
Time was increasingly running out and by the time five minutes remained between France and the finals, England brought out some resolve from nowhere to take the lead. Jason Robinson went on another mazy run and was improperly tackled, which induced another penalty for Wilkinson to score, putting England 11-9 in front. With two minutes remaining the French appeared to have been deflated at such an effort being demoted by Wilkinson's latest penalty. The fight in them looked subdued, even more so with victory sealed as the ball was thrown to Wilkinson for him to initiate a drop-kick for three more points, ending the match 14-9 to England, ending another France defeat in the semi-finals from 2003 and bringing England to face the Springboks on Sunday. Superb display of grit, determination and heart from the players, which I think deserves the trophy.