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Saturday, Feb. 10, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

McClaren taking heat after England's most recent stumble


LONDON -- Seven months after Sven-Goran Eriksson's departure, many of those who were glad to see him walk away are yearning for a return of the good old days under the Swede.

Christopher Davies

As Eriksson was run out of town, he reminded his adopted country: "I did take you to three quarterfinals in the World Cup and European Championship . . ."

The 1-0 defeat by Spain at Old Trafford was England's fourth game without a win under Steve McClaren and simply qualifying for Euro 2008 would be an achievement, let alone reaching the last eight.

It would be an understatement to say McClaren has yet to win over England fans.

McClaren and the players were booed off the Old Trafford pitch on Wednesday after an insipid and uninspired performance against a lively Spanish side.

The feeling persists he was far from the Football Association's first choice to succeed Eriksson (despite their assurances he was) and that a man who was assistant to the vilified Swede was not the most inspired of appointments.

As Eriksson's No. 2, many felt McClaren was culpable for England's underachievements.

His record with Middlesbrough gave no real suggestion that he would become a force as an international head coach, and despite the trademark smile and spin doctor statements, McClaren seems to be out of his depth at this level.

The four winless matches -- two defeats and two draws -- have seen England score just one goal.

After the awful goal-less draw against Macedonia, the inept defeat by Croatia and, at best, an ordinary display in drawing against Holland, England needed to produce the goods against Spain. It failed miserably.

There have been few if any signs of progress under McClaren. In fact, some observers believe England has gone backward since the 2006 World Cup, which was Eriksson's swan song.

England supporters were looking for some momentum to take into the crucial European Championship qualifier against Israel in Tel Aviv next month. Instead they saw mediocrity.

As the Spanish inquisition continued, McClaren pointed to the absence of injured players such as John Terry, Owen Hargreaves and Wayne Rooney, while no more than half a dozen of the players on show at Old Trafford are likely to turn out in Tel Aviv.

The pluses from the defeat by Spain were Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster, who looked a safe alternative to the dropped/rested (depending on your viewpoint) Paul Robinson.

Jonathan Woodgate showed that when fit, he does not look out of place at the highest level.

The downside from Old Trafford, apart from the collective disappointment, was that Shaun Wright-Phillips possesses pace but not the finesse for international soccer. Ditto Peter Crouch, but without the pace.

"We know the criticism will fly, but at times like this, we all have to keep our nerve," said McClaren. "We know what we are doing, and we know where we are. We also know in six weeks' time we will have a completely different situation to what we have at present. We are disappointed to lose, but we must stay positive. We will be ready in six weeks' time."

Will they?

It is difficult to see what McClaren's optimism is based on other than blind optimism.

Israel has lost just once in seven years on home soil, the 4-3 defeat by Croatia last November.

The England head coach's biggest decision will be whether to drop Frank Lampard and give Steven Gerrard the freedom of midfield his vast talent deserves.

In the 45 minutes Gerrard was allowed by Liverpool to play against Spain, he was by far England's most productive performer.

Gerrard was inspirational, spraying passes to his team-mates and tracking back when Spain attacked.

Lampard may be an "untouchable" at Chelsea, but it has been a long time since he consistently reproduced his club form for his country.

It would be a brave decision by McClaren to drop Lampard, but the Chelsea midfielder and Gerrard have never been a dominant partnership for England.

To his credit stand-in captain, Gerrard did not hide behind a wall of cliches and admitted England is suffering a crisis of confidence.

"The fans were a bit upset when we came off the pitch," Gerrard said. "I can understand the fans' frustration -- of course I can. The supporters had paid good money, and they wanted to see goals.

"They wanted to see us wipe the Spanish away -- but it was always going to be a difficult test.

"Is the jury still out with the fans? I think it will be until we go on a really big winning streak and we are putting in top quality performances.

"Winning is a great habit to get into, and when you are losing or not winning games, it is not good for confidence."

Defeat in Israel would make England's chances of qualifying for Euro 2008 as difficult as it will be for McClaren to hold on to his job.

MOST unfriendly friendly between Queens Park Rangers and China's Olympic team is the subject of an investigation by the Football Association and the police.

A Chinese player was knocked unconscious for a short period, broke his jaw and lost a tooth in a fight that forced Premiership referee Dermot Gallagher to abandon the game.

Zheng Tao was beaten by six Rangers players -- doctors said he had two cracks in his jawbone and has to rest for at least three months, one report claimed.

China's overzealous tacking angered Rangers, and with 15 minutes remaining, Gao Lin argued with and then fought a QPR player.

Two other Rangers players dashed over and picked up Gao -- a minute of fist-fighting and kicking followed before Gallagher called the game off and the police were summoned.

Li Xiaoguang, the manager of the Chinese Olympic team, apologized for his players' behavior, and one can only wonder what is in store for China's opponents in the Olympic soccer tournament.

"Whatever the reasons for the incident, as the team manager, I will take the responsibility," he said. "Although the participants in this incident were the players, I will take all the blame."

Ironically, the Olympic team was in London as a guest of Chelsea's. The Blues are trying to make inroads into China's lucrative sports market.

"If this incident is reported by Mr. Gallagher, then, of course, we will be investigating it fully," said and F.A. spokesman.

"I failed to control myself," said Gao. "When facing the provocation, I failed to obey the three rules of submitting to the referee, respecting opponents and not striking back, which caused the incident. I sincerely apologize."

In a practice game against Chelsea's reserve team earlier in the week, China's Dai Lin was sent off in a match that also featured ugly incidents.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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