Several mornings after the night before and England are back in action, looking to bury the ghosts of Old Trafford’s poor performance. And it happens to be the most difficult match of the Qualifying Group, hardly ideal in the respect of Saturday but perhaps the perfect antidote as another “small” nation may induce the same comatose performance. Team news is hardly ideal, with Gerrard’s suspension the flanks look so bare that Old Mother Hubbard would probably consider her cupboard to be fully stocked by comparison. Ledley King has pulled out of the Squad, more for protection than anything else which is fair enough as Rio Ferdinand has seemingly recovered from his back spasm, no doubt induced by too much “Merking”.
Those two should not be the only absentees from Saturday. It is difficult to see how Michael Carrick will retain his place, his lacklustre performance should consign him to the bench. In his place, I would choose Phil Neville. Whilst he is not the most attractive of footballers – not a cheap jibe, more a reference to his ability to break the play down – he is effective and most “like for like” replacement for Owen Hargreaves. On the left, it is possible that Wayne Bridge may come in for Stewart Downing but McClaren will probably stick with the Middlesbrough man as it could be one change too far in the midfield, leaving Fat Frank as the soul survivor of Saturday. On the right, I would personally play Wright-Phillips if it were 4-4-2 as a formation. He is a genuine wide player and whilst he is of the same school as Downing to a certain extent – eyes down, charge for the byeline – that is the sort of service which Crouch should thrive on.
My expected line-up is therefore:
Robinson; Neville (G), Terry, Ferdinand, Cole; Wright-Phillips, Neville (P), Lampard, Downing; Rooney; Crouch
It has been an interesting few days for the media, having a typical Englishman in charge of the team. There has been plenty of talk from McClaren about “Character”, “Passion”, “Belief” and very little reported about “Technical Ability”, “Retaining Possession of the Ball”, “Not pumping aimless long balls up to Crouch”. Perchance he realises that it is the latter that is needed but the former that will be received. In contrast, England can expect to spend considerable periods chasing the shadows of the Croatians who make the ball do the work in preference to themselves. That said, England’s meetings with them have been frutiful, albeit two friendlies and a Euro 2004 match. The latter was a somewhat useful barometer but different in that it was a one-off that had to be won, suiting the English pace and ability to pressurise an opponent into mistakes. This time round, perhaps it is more of an imperative to avoid defeat than to win.
The hosts had a miserable World Cup, losing to Brazil and failing to beat Australia although it could be argued that the latter was a spiritual derby for the Antipodeans who mustered a passionate performance, at a level of intensity that will not be matched tonight. And of course, Graham Poll will not be there to perform his three card trick.
Their record in Qualifying is similar to that of England. A run of twenty odd matches at home without defeat is nothing to be sniffed at but it is worth noting that Italy are the only top-ranked nation they have played in that run, eleven years ago when an arguably far better Croatian side was held to a 1 – 1 draw. Since then numerous mid-level European teams, e.g. Belgium, Scotland, Poland, Denmark, have come and gone without tasting victory. I do mean any disrespect but these are teams that you expect to beat at home. And yes, the Macedonians have been there before and lost; 3 – 2 if you are interested. The point is whilst the run they are on is good, there is nothing within it to be frightened of.
My Prediction: England to sneak a one goal win, probably 1 – 0.
As a token PS: Congratulations to Theo Walcott whose brace in Germany helped England to a 3 – 0 aggregate win to gain the U-21’s qualification to their age groups European Championships. Perhaps someone at the FA will now review their decision to replace Peter Taylor’s part-time stewardship with a full-time role?