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March 26, 2007 3:00 am
Even when he gets things right, it all goes wrong for Steve McClaren.
In almost every respect but the result, Saturday's goalless draw against Israel was England's best performance of his reign as manager. But the hazy bogeyman must now be acknowledged as a genuine possibility: England might not qualify for Euro 2008.
McClaren, hair thinning seemingly by the match, is becoming a man to whom unfortunate things happen. In the context of Saturday, haranguing him is pointless and, while there was understandable frustration among away fans when Stewart Downing rather than the pacier Kieron Dyer replaced the fading Aaron Lennon, the chant of "you don't know what you're doing" was meaningless.
McClaren is not an impressive figure in press conferences. His faux-matiness grates and much of what he says is vacuous but any talk of pride or passion or focus is meaningless beside the bones of results. Judge him on results, he has implored, but the facts here are stark: with two to qualify, England lie five points behind a relentless Croatia and three points behind the improving Russia in Group E. Defeat in Moscow in October would almost certainly be terminal.
Yet this was not a bad display. Lennon was at times threatening, Frank Lampard had his best game for England for some time and the return of Owen Hargreaves gave a sense of shape in midfield. Only Wayne Rooney and, in the later stages, Steven Gerrard, were real disappointments, and there must be concerns at the Liverpool midfielder's evident disillusionment in what he has dubbed "the graveyard shift" out on the right.
McClaren, however, was right to point out that, had England nicked a goal, it would have been regarded as a solid away performance. After some early flurries from Toto Tamuz, Israel barely threatened and England certainly had their chances. Jamie Carragher hit the bar, Lampard glanced a header a fraction wide and Dudu Aouate, the Israel goalkeeper, made three useful, if not spectacular, saves.
A lack of ruthlessness was blamed, which will be taken in some quarters as criticism of Andy Johnson, making his first competitive international start but, aside from one second-half cross from Gerrard that he headed poorly wide, the Everton forward could argue that he was poorly served. A run of one goal in five games is England's worst since 1981 and the darkest days of Ron Greenwood's reign but the issue seems less a dearth of creative or finishing potential than a lack of incisiveness - and that can probably be attributed as much to waning confidence as anything else.
The problem is not Saturday's performance; it is that past results have forced England into a corner. The "time to deliver" mantra is not simply a fatuous call to arms but it is also a fair representation of reality. The defeat in Croatia and the draw at home to Macedonia have left England in a position where they can afford no more slip-ups. "If we take four points against each of the top four sides, we'll go through," McClaren said, which is almost certainly true, but England cannot now do that, having already lost to Croatia. Six from the two games against Russia would redress the balance.
There is a growing reliance on the hope that the grandeur of the new Wembley will inspire England while cowing opponents; the danger is that the opposite could be true and expectation will become a burden. Andorra on Wednesday should provide some relief but a qualifying group that had looked like a boulevard to Euro 2008 has become a tightrope.
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