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Saturday, Sept. 8, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

England needs big lift from Heskey against Israel


LONDON — Any suggestion at the end of last season that Emile Heskey should be recalled to the England team would have been met with ridicule. Wigan Athletic was the only club in 2006-07 not to supply a player to the England squad, but now its center forward has gone from international underachiever — five goals in 43 appearances — to England's savior against Israel in a Euro 2008 qualifier on Saturday.

Christopher Davies

Adding to the unexpected elevation in status for Heskey is the fact that he was drafted onto the squad by head coach Steve McClaren after it had been announced even though no strikers suffered injuries in last weekend's Premier League games. Why wasn't he picked for the initial squad?

His last appearance in an England shirt was in June 2004. If Heskey is the answer, one wonders what the question is.

Michael Owen apparently enjoys playing alongside his former Liverpool teammate. Heskey is an unselfish, willing partner and with Peter Crouch suspended for the Israel match he is set to be the large in the little-and-large England strike force.

There is an air of overconfidence as the Israel game approaches. Israel is an experienced, well-organized team and it has lost only one of its last 18 competitive games, a record that puts it up with the very best in European football. Israel should be respected.

Israel's smothering tactics in Tel Aviv last March frustrated England and the goalless draw was hailed as a moral victory in Israel. We can expect more of the same at Wembley. Israel also fancies its chances of finishing second in the group, probably behind either Russia or Croatia.

Under Sven-Goran Eriksson England qualified for major finals without too many problems. The Swede may have made the headlines because of his domestic life, but on the pitch England generally did the business in qualifiers with him in charge.

This has not been the case under McClaren. Apart from the draw in Israel, in the Euro 2008 campaign to date England could only draw at home with Macedonia while losing in Croatia. England has five qualifiers remaining, and if it does not win 12 points, it is unlikely to be in Switzerland and Austria next June.

McClaren's contract with the Football Association runs to 2010, but the failure to qualify for Euro 2008 would put immense pressure on his employers to find a coach who can galvanize the team. The increasing number of overseas players in the Premier League is trotted out as an excuse for English players not having enough opportunities. Poppycock. If an English or any player is good enough, he will be selected by his club. Talent not the passport is what matters.

The Premier League is rich and strong and its national team should always qualify for finals. Italy, Spain and Germany can justifiably have similar confidence.

Playing for England under McClaren seems to be becoming a chore rather than an honor and the fans are clearly not inspired by what they are seeing.

This may not be a vintage era for English players but the national coach should still be able to get them to the finals. Look how Guus Hiddink, this correspondent's choice to succeed Eriksson, has made Russia a consistent, unbeaten team in competitive matches over the past year.

In contrast, England has won only two of its last eight internationals and goes into the Israel match without an outstanding goalkeeper, no Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Kieron Dyer (injured), Crouch (suspended) and concerns over the fitness of Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Owen Hargreaves. Apart from that everything is hunky-dory.

After his poor performance in the defeat to Germany last month, Paul Robinson will probably be replaced by David James in goal. It is a huge decision to change the goalkeeper as it tends not to be for just one game as happens with an outfield player. James is 37 so he is hardly a long-term prospect but McClaren is looking only at Israel.

Next Wednesday, Russia visit Wembley with almost certainly three more points in the bag after playing Macedonia at home Saturday. Anything but a win over Israel will see an increasingly frustrated mood among supporters who have already booed the England team in other qualifying matches.

Football tends to be a black-and-white sport. Win and the garden is rosy, lose and the diggers are out. A draw against Israel would be perceived as a defeat, though in fairness to McClaren he is not using the injury problems as a ready-made get-out.

"I told the players, 'No excuses,' " he said. "We have enough in the squad to win these games. We have good enough players and a good enough team to win both matches. We have a lot to prove and a lot to do. We have got to start doing it.

"The expectations are big but we have to cope with that and deliver. We have five games left, four at home and we should relish the challenge." In a worse case scenario, the F.A. would find it very difficult to replace McClaren at the end of the qualifying campaign. The head coach was chief executive Brian Barwick's first major appointment and he would stand by his man but never underestimate the media.

All the best managers would either be in the middle of a domestic season or heading toward Euro 2008 with their respective teams.

* * * * *

ARSENAL made its best signing of the year when manager Arsene Wenger agreed to a new three-year contract this week.

This columnist makes no secret of its admiration for the Frenchman, who is a class act as a person and a manager. True, Arsenal is guilty of over-playing at times (what a crime!), being too elaborate and seemingly wanting to score only goals of the highest quality.

Chelsea and Manchester United have won the last three titles but the best football has been played by Arsenal. There are changes afoot on the Gunners' board, but as long as Wenger remains at the helm the club can be confident for the future.

Thierry Henry has gone to Barcelona, but ex-Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas has started the season in brilliant style. Under the guidance of Wenger, Fabregas, 20, can become one of the truly great players to have graced the Premier League. He is my early tip to be named Footballer of the Year at the end of what I believe will be a memorable season in the Premier League.



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