England stumble on towards Israel qualifier
MANCHESTER, England, Feb 8 (Reuters) - England's 1-0 friendly defeat by Spain has exposed the lack of quality in depth in a squad that is struggling to qualify for Euro 2008.
Though England's first-choice team are a formidable opponent, their replacements fell a long way short of that level on a freezing Wednesday night at Old Trafford.
There was little consolation for manager Steve McClaren at the final whistle as the boos rained down from a near 60,000 crowd, who had watched Peter Crouch squander England's only real scoring chance in 90 minutes of football.
More worrying than the performance, which had lacked guile, possession and attacking threat, was the context in which England had played the game.
McClaren was not a universally popular choice with the England fan base or the British media when it came to replacing Sven-Goran Eriksson after the World Cup.
A promising start by Eriksson's former assistant has since fizzled out with a 0-0 home qualifying draw in Group E with Macedonia and a 2-0 defeat in Croatia.
England are lying third in the table with seven points, one behind Russia and three adrift of the Croatians.
Two friendlies have yielded a 1-1 draw in the Netherlands and a defeat by Spain, leaving England with no wins and only one goal to show for their last four games.
It is not a record to inspire confidence before their next qualifier on March 24 in Israel, where Croatia had to score four times to be sure of beating their hosts in November.
Tactics have varied and the 4-3-3 used against Spain failed to improve matters, making it hard at times to work out who was supposed to be doing what on Wednesday.
Even McClaren said: 'We had quite a few different permutations ... and what I had in mind (last week) ... certainly didn't materialise by this game.
'We lacked players who were in Holland who gave that balance and cohesion.'
The absentees did indeed loom large over Old Trafford and the prospect of several of them returning in Israel gives grounds for optimism.
McClaren was also right to identify some encouraging displays by debutant keeper Ben Foster, central defender Jonathan Woodgate and forward Kieron Dyer as positives to take out of their defeat.
'It's not an excuse but it's a reason, that there were six or seven missing who would have been in the starting line-up,' McClaren said.
Ideally, England would have Ashley Cole and John Terry in defence, Owen Hargreaves and Joe Cole in midfield, with Aaron Lennon on the bench, and Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen leading the attack.
None were available against Spain and captain for the night Steven Gerrard was only given the first half under an agreement with his club Liverpool, due to a niggling injury.
All but Owen and Ashley Cole, who is both injured and suspended for the Israel game, ought to be back.
McClaren, and the England fans, will be hoping they make a difference.