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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

England needs help from Israel to keep Euro hopes alive


LONDON — In August, England head coach Steve McClaren said the media should "judge me on results," so if the results are not good enough the man in charge will have his wish and be judged. The verdict will be guilty and the sentence loss of job.

Christopher Davies

If England fails to qualify for Euro 2008 the Football Association will have little alternative than to sack McClaren, otherwise it sends out a message it is accepting failure and mediocrity.

Should Russia beat Israel in Tel Aviv on Saturday England will effectively be out of contention. There is as much chance of the sun rising in the west as Russia failing to beat Andorra on Wednesday, when Croatia comes to what would be a huge, hostile anti-climax at Wembley.

Russia, Croatia, Israel, Macedonia and Andorra did not make up the strongest of European Championship qualifying groups.

Scotland found itself up against the 2006 World Cup finalists Italy and France, plus quarterfinalist Ukraine, yet will make it to Switzerland and Austria next summer if it defeats the Italians at Hampden Park.

Worse case scenario and Russia beats Israel, then England's game against Croatia will be a Euro 2008 wake.

The media and supporters were not doing cartwheels when Sven-Goran Eriksson's right-hand man was appointed to succeed the Swede last year, and Sven Lite has done little to win over the country despite the best public relations and spin doctor efforts of the F.A.

Even if the unexpected hap pens and England qualifies, McClaren will receive few pats on the back be cause the national team should always at least be at major finals given the strength of the Premier League.

A Russia triumph would see vitriolic headlines with McClaren depicted as a turnip, a donkey and other less than flattering images. F.A. councillors would not be impressed by a less than full Wembley next Wednesday with an atmosphere of frustration and anger among those who bother to turn up for what would be effectively an academic game.

McClaren's players have predictably rallied around the head coach, but they would, wouldn't they?

What are they going to say?

It's all McClaren's fault?

"Blame us," they say knowing they can't be sacked.

A decent man who cares deeply about his job and his country, McClaren was appointed above his capabilities. He won't resign because he would lose any compensation, so the F.A. must take the necessary action with McClaren, no doubt leaving by the politically correct "mutual consent" as most managers seem to these days.

F.A. suits who have been supportive of McClaren while England retains a mathematical chance of Euro qualification would soon switch allegiances.

If they really believed McClaren was the man to lead England to the 2010 World Cup, the F.A. could have strangled all speculation at birth by saying just that.

"Whether England qualifies for Euro 2008 or not Steve McClaren has a contract until 2010 and that will be honored." End of story.

But the F.A. will gauge public opinion (as if it needs to) if England is committed to watching next summer's European action on television.

The F.A.'s next board meeting is not scheduled until Nov. 29, which would mean eight days of McClaren baiting should England fail. One hopes the F.A. would put him out of his misery earlier, though "speed" and "F.A. committee" are not on first-name terms.

England played a friendly in Austria on Friday night ahead of next Wednesday's visit of Croatia. The game that really matters to England this weekend is the game between Israel and Russia.

England fans will become Israel supporters on Saturday.

* * * * *

ISRAEL'S home record over the past five years suggests it will not beat Russia in the Euro 2008 qualifying tie in Tel Aviv. A draw is the most England can realistically hope for on recent Israeli form, which would at least keep its qualification flame burning.

In 17 home internationals since 2002, Israel has lost only two — 4-3 o Croatia last November in a Euro 2008 qualifier, and 2-0 to Denmark in a friendly in March 2006.

The bad news is their seven victories have all been against Europe's lesser lights. When Israel has come up against European football's more established powers they have failed to win.

Their home successes have been against Cyprus (2-1), the Faroe Islands (2-1) Andorra (4-1), Estonia (4-0), Armenia (2-0), Azerbaijan (6-0), and Lithuania (2-1).

When the bigger guns have come to Tel Aviv the best Israel has managed is a draw, though, if Russia comes away with only a point on Saturday, England's hopes of Euro 2008 qualification will still be alive going into the final qualifier against Croatia next Wednesday.

England would then need to beat Croatia, which has been by far the best team in the group.

Israel went through the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign unbeaten. It defeated Cyprus and the Faroe Islands at home and away while registering draws in both ties against France, Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland.

Israel may be hard to beat but at the same time it finds it difficult to defeat Europe's middle and upper classes.

While it would be disrespectful to doubt Israel's commitment to the cause, Russia's motivation for victory in Tel Aviv will obviously be higher as a win would virtually guarantee its place in next summer's European Championship finals.

Defeat away to Andorra would rank as one of the greatest upsets in football history.

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


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