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Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

Trip to Euro 2008 on the line for McClaren, England


LONDON — By Wednesday evening England will either have one foot in the Euro 2008 finals and Steve McClaren will have most of the nation eating humble pie or the national team will be on the brink of a European Championship exit with the head coach's job hanging by the most slender of threads.

Christopher Davies

"Trust me, I will get the big decisions right," said McClaren as England prepared to play Estonia on Saturday ahead of Wednesday's showdown against Russia on the artificial turf of the Luzhniki Stadium. "It's what I'm paid for."

Many would question some of McClaren's initial decision-making when he took over for Sven-Goran Eriksson after the 2006 World Cup, but beating Estonia at Wembley should be as much as a formality as there can be in international football.

Even so, McClaren has several selection dilemmas.

Injuries to Owen Hargreaves, Gary Neville and Frank Lampard helped him choose his lineups for last month's back-to-back home wins over Israel and Russia, which put England's qualification hopes back on track.

It is less simple this time around with the added problem that a yellow card for captain John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole and Joe Cole would rule them out of the trip to Russia.

England should be able to beat Estonia with whatever team McClaren selects, but to protect Terry, Ferdinand and Ashley Cole — three of the first-choice back-four — would mean serious disruption to the side.

Terry and Chelsea teammate Ashley Cole are the most likely to be cautioned in any game given their style and confrontational approach to referees.

If Sol Campbell is fit after an Achilles problem, the Portsmouth defender seems set to return to international duty in place of Terry against Estonia.

Lampard is fit after a knee injury, so once again McClaren has to decide whether the Chelsea player should partner with Steven Gerrard in the center of midfield. Individually, both deserve to play, but as a midfield partnership the pair has rarely looked happy together.

Gareth Barry was outstanding in the midfield holding role against Israel and Russia, and on those showings does not deserve to be dropped.

If Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole fill the wide positions, then one of Lampard, Gerrard and Barry must be left out. As McClaren said, this is the sort of decision he is paid to get right.

Emile Heskey's foot injury and Wayne Rooney's availability after injury means the Manchester United striker will partner Michael Owen in attack.

For all his undoubted talent Rooney owes England a big game. He hasn't scored a competitive goal for his country since the 4-2 win over Croatia at Euro 2004, and breaking this three-year drought against Estonia would boost Rooney's confidence for the crucial game in Moscow.

Owen is a goal machine but he is not as effective alongside Rooney — in their 14 competitive games together Owen has scored just four goals. In 14 starts with Heskey, Owen has scored 14 times.

The outcome of the game against Estonia is not in doubt but McClaren must still earn his money with his selection decisions.

* * * * *

ENGLAND'S VISIT to Russia on Wednesday is turning into more than just a Euro 2008 qualifying tie. Those with a vested interest could use the match as a political public relations exercise ahead of the State Duma elections on Dec. 2, with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party seeing a possible Russia victory as a platform to boost its support.

Incredibly, Russia's leading politicians are likely to watch the first half of the tie on television and then, if things are going well for the home team, be driven to the match with a police escort for the second half.

The game against England is the biggest Russia has played in years and interest is reflected by the fact there were 500,000 postal applications for the game in the 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium.

The match could become almost as much about politics as football with Russia's power brokers seeking to bask in any reflected glory from Guus Hiddink's team.

When Russia beat Switzerland 4-1 in a Euro 2004 qualifying tie four years ago United Russia used the victory to associate itself with the national team's success.

Television stations showed United Russia leaders Boris Gryzlov — now Duma speaker but then the interior minister — emergency situations minister Sergei Shoigu and federal sports agency chief Vyacheslav Fetisov cheering on the home side from their VIP box at Lokomotiv Stadium.

After the win, the politicians hugged coach Georgy Yartsev, also a member of United Russia, during after-match interviews.

A government official, who asked not to be identified, last week confirmed that United Russia had used the victory over Switzerland as a public relations exercise and a similar situation can be expected on Wednesday.

The official said: "During the last election campaign United Russia members watched the first half of the game on television and, when they saw the team were beating Switzerland, went to the stadium just to be caught by the television cameras. I think it will be the same this time. I'm talking about some big names, too."

The Russian Football Union revealed that politicians and government ministries plus bureaucrats have all been seeking tickets.

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


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