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Fantasy Focus
By ESPN Staff

Tense time for England hopefuls

Joey Barton and Jonathan Woodgate will spend the next 24 hours anxiously waiting to discover whether Steve McClaren sees them as part of his England plans.

With the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign due to resume in Israel at the end of next month, Wednesday's Old Trafford friendly with Spain represents the last chance for experimentation.

Despite naming a massive 28-man squad for the encouraging draw with Holland in November, McClaren only fielded one fresh face in Manchester City teenager Micah Richards, so massive changes are not anticipated.

However Barton, who along with Richards has been one of the stand-out performers at City this term, and Woodgate, who has put virtually three years of injury hell behind him to recover top form on loan at Middlesbrough, will be more hopeful than most of a breakthrough.

For Barton in particular, a failure to make an England squad for the first time would be a blow.

It is barely a month since McClaren spoke in glowing terms about the combative 24-year-old, citing his determined attitude as one of his key strengths.

Barton may not have endeared himself to the likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard with his controversial comments about the autobiographies of England's failed World Cup stars, but McClaren knows the Huyton-born player will lack nothing in commitment if he does get a chance.

And Richards for one, would be happy to see his club colleague included.

'Joey deserves to get a call,' said the defender.

'He has shown everyone what he can do this season and hopefully, he will get in there.'

The one negative for Barton is that McClaren is not short of midfield options. Woodgate, however, can take advantage of Wes Brown's lack of recent extended match practice at Manchester United.

Also, skipper John Terry, who is set to be included, can hardly be regarded as fully fit after so long on the sidelines with a long-standing back complaint.

Although England are hardly short of top quality central defenders, Woodgate has often been viewed as one of the very best.

Yet his chronic luck with injuries means the Real Madrid player has not featured on the international stage since he won his fifth cap against Sweden in March 2004.

McClaren already knows he will definitely be without two of his starting line-up from the Amsterdam trip now Ashley Cole has joined Chelsea team-mate Joe on the sidelines with a serious-looking knee injury.

The full-back's place will almost certainly go to Stamford Bridge colleague Wayne Bridge, who has not started an international for almost 12 months.

Newcastle's Kieron Dyer, whose own injury troubles have cost him two years of England action, may be the man to replace Joe Cole.

With Andrew Johnson only an outside bet to recover from an ankle injury in time to play for Everton in Saturday's Merseyside derby at Anfield, McClaren must decide whether to ditch the three-man striking formation he used in Holland, which featured Wayne Rooney at its tip, even though Aaron Lennon should be available.

McClaren was criticised in some quarters for playing Johnson out of position against Holland. Yet the England coach is clearly a fan of the former Crystal Palace forward, and rejects the widely-held belief he is a diver.

'Andrew Johnson is one of the most honest players I have come across,' McClaren told the Liverpool Daily Post. 'He has got a lot of pace which gets him into certain situations.

'It is not a case of him diving but riding the tackles that causes things to happen.

'Some of the things that have been said about him are ridiculous. He is a very honest player.'