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Saturday, Sept. 15, 2007
Injuries to key England players help McClaren find right formula by accident
LONDON — If you can't be a good coach, be a lucky one.
Thanks to injuries to David Beckham, Gary Neville, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard, England stumbled across a team capable of beating both Israel and Russia 3-0 at Wembley.
A few more injuries and England might even win Euro 2008.
Make no mistake, had Beckham been fit then Shaun Wright-Phillips would not have played.
Micah Richards, Neville's replacement at right-back, has been a revelation.
Had Owen Hargreaves been available, then he, not Gareth Barry, would have been the anchorman in midfield.
Emile Heskey led the attack only because Wayne Rooney's foot injury had not healed and Peter Crouch was suspended against Israel.
The immense contribution of the four replacements plus the return to fitness of Michael Owen were the main reasons England's hopes of qualification have risen dramatically.
Steve McClaren's team selection was almost made for him by the absentees. The only tricky choice he had to make was whether Paul Robinson was retained in goal, and credit to the coach that he got that one right by sticking with the Tottenham player and not bringing back David James.
England also had a huge slice of good fortune when, leading 1-0, Konstantin Zyryanov had a potential equalizer disallowed because Swedish referee Martin Hansson decided the Russian had deliberately handled the ball before scoring.
In fact, the ball struck the player's chest, a Sliding Doors moment that worked in England's favor.
Had the decision gone against England under the same circumstances, Hansson would probably have received death threats — and sadly no, I am not joking.
Lady Luck smiled on McClaren, who now has a welcome selection dilemma.
Hargreaves, Neville and Rooney will be available for the next game at home to Estonia, but they must not be brought back.
A few weeks ago the mere suggestion that Heskey would even be picked for England would have invited ridicule. For him to stay in the side at the expense of Rooney was unthinkable.
Owen thrives alongside the unselfish Heskey and the Newcastle striker has now scored 14 goals in his last 14 starts with his former Liverpool teammate as his partner.
Heskey's stats are unimpressive — five goals in 45 internationals. It was the emergence of Rooney three years ago that cost Heskey his place in the England side, but remarkably the Manchester United striker has not scored a competitive goal for England since 2004, which is not grounds for an automatic recall when fit.
Hargreaves has possibly been England's most improved player over the past 18 months, but left-footer Barry gives England's midfield more balance. The Manchester United player is more a dogs-of-war midfielder, but Barry's passing is considerably better.
Richards' form means Neville's place in the side is no longer automatic.
The new guard has taken England forward and when Estonia comes to Wembley we could see the Manchester United trio of Neville, Hargreaves and Rooney on the substitutes' bench.
A wager on such a scenario last month would have brought the most generous of odds.
The mood in the England camp has gone from doom and gloom to euphoria, though a sprinkling of caution is needed. A win against Estonia at Wembley — as much as a formality as there can be — and a point in Moscow should ensure qualification.
Defeat on the Russian plastic will see qualification go to the wire with England needing to avoid defeat in the last match against Croatia.
As Sir Alex Ferguson would say, that will be squeaky bum time.
Russia tends to win nearly all of its home games in qualification campaigns, and after a cautious approach by coach Guus Hiddink in the first half at Wembley, the visitors showed how dangerous they can be after the break.
The brainless announcer at Wembley who said at the end of the game that "you can start booking your tickets for Austria" merely added to the Russian's motivation for the return game.
The fat lady is not even gargling yet.
Croatia will almost certainly have qualified by the time it visits Wembley in the last game, and it will not take its foot off the pedal.
Beating England at home in a competitive match is still a significant scalp, and rest assured it is one the Croatians will be after.
Almost as welcome as the six points was the return to form and fitness of Owen, who took his tally to 40 goals in 85 England appearances.
Bobby Charlton's all-time England record of 49 goals is unlikely to last for more than another season or two if the Newcastle striker remains fit.
Owen has endured a wretched year of injuries, but at 27 has time on his side.
Surprisingly, Owen is not the favorite son of England fans that his scoring record should demand. This is a mystery, though events of the past week have seen his popularity rating rightly rise like England's hopes of reaching Switzerland and Austria next summer.
McClaren has been praised through gritted teeth by an English media which does not see Sven-Goran Eriksson's successor as a master coach.
Former England captain Alan Shearer spoke for most of the nation when he said: "McClaren almost stumbled on a winning team.
"If Wayne Rooney, Owen Hargreaves and Frank Lampard had been fit and Peter Crouch hadn't been suspended for the Israel game, we probably wouldn't have seen Emile Heskey and Gareth Barry in there."
Yet it is difficult to be too critical after England's best performance since beating Germany 5-1 six years ago. Every team needs a stroke of luck in qualifiers, but unusually England's came in the form of injuries to key, established players.
McClaren may yet return from Russia with love.
Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.