LONDON -- England coach Steve McClaren has not seen David Beckham play since he dumped him from the national team after the World Cup. With his job on the line, however, McClaren is ready to recall the Real Madrid midfielder to England's starting lineup. Beckham is set to start in a friendly against Brazil at Wembley on Friday and in a European Championship qualifier at Estonia on June 6. England needs to win at Estonia to keep its chances of qualifying for Euro 2008 on track. When McClaren took over the England coaching job from Sven-Goran Eriksson in August, his first decision was to drop Beckham from the team. Beckham was seen as untouchable under Eriksson even as his celebrity off the field was threatening to overshadow his form on it. Now, McClaren believes Beckham has played his way back onto the squad. "David is the fittest I have seen him for a long time," McClaren said Tuesday. "He showed a great hunger and desire to get back. He didn't moan. He just got his head down and worked hard. I don't know whether it is a question of proving me wrong, but the statistics are there." McClaren said he followed the lead of Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello, who reversed a decision to dump Beckham from the Spanish club after Beckham announced in January he would sign with Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy after his contract ends June 30. "You've got to respect the work Fabio Capello is doing at Real Madrid," McClaren said. "He has had the same problems as me. He had no hesitation about bringing David back when he was on form and that has changed the fortunes of Real Madrid. I would be very foolish to ignore that." Real Madrid, chasing its first major trophy since Beckham's arrival from Manchester United in 2003, is tied atop the Spanish league with FC Barcelona with two games remaining. McClaren said the fitness level of the 32-year-old Beckham was impressive. "I have not made this decision for the fans, the media or anyone else. It is about form. I will stand or fall by that, but anyone who has watched David closely over the last few weeks and months must understand why he is in the squad." Beckham resigned as captain the day after England lost in the World Cup quarterfinals in a penalty shootout against Portugal. It was his 94th international, and Beckham has long stated his wish to reach the 100 mark. But McClaren, Eriksson's assistant for several years, decided last August he was taking England in a different direction, saying "it's a clean sheet of paper for everybody and that's why I decided not to pick David Beckham." Nearly a year later, and after he was jeered by fans following England's last two lackluster games, McClaren is set to return with the midfield that largely underperformed at the World Cup: Beckham on the right, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the center, Joe Cole on the left. "Leaving David out in the first place was a tough decision and he left a big void," McClaren said Tuesday. England is fourth in Group E of Euro 2008 qualifying with 11 points from six games. Croatia leads the group with 13 points, followed by Israel and Russia with 11. Only the top two teams qualify for the tournament in Austria and Switzerland. Estonia is sixth in the seven-country group with no points after five matches. "I have to be pragmatic," McClaren said "Everyone knows we need to win in Estonia next week. The squad I have selected is designed to do that."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press