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By ESPN Staff

Time for McClaren to take a gamble

We've seen a situation like this somewhere before. A selection gamble on a young England star without much hope of them actually playing. When Theo Walcott was continually ignored by former coach Sven Goran-Eriksson at the World Cup in Germany, there were questions surrounding the reasons for his inclusion, and it seems history may be repeating itself.

Now, under a different regime, Steve McClaren has called up U21 stars David Bentley, Ashley Young and Joleon Lescott, but will he have the guts to play them in England's cruicial Euro 2008 qualifiers against Israel and Russia?

There is no doubt that the current squad has been hampered by injuries. Almost able to field a full starting XI of injured players, McClaren has had to dig deep in order to fill his 26-man party. But he has continued to disappoint with his selections.

Finally bringing some exciting youngsters into the fold, McClaren has balanced one good decision, with a call-up for 29-year-old Wigan striker Emile Heskey.

Heskey's introduction is bizarre for a squad boasting five fit strikers already. Michael Owen has been in good form, netting twice in his last two games, and looks certain to start against Israel, while Andrew Johnson, Alan Smith, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch will be fighting to partner the Newcastle striker.

Despite his failure to nail down a starting place with Liverpool, Crouch would be the obvious choice if he wasn't suspended for the Israel game and will surely link up with Owen in the game against Russia five days later.

While Defoe has not had the chance to show his skills this season with Tottenham, the combative Alan Smith would be second choice as he got the nod in the friendly against Germany. With Dean Ashton still recovering from a long term ankle injury, McClaren is already deprived of one physical striker, and Heskey is apparently the next best thing.

Having already collected 43 international caps in his career, it is clear that the coach is keen for Heskey to use his experience of playing up front with Owen in a game that he cannot afford to lose. The trouble is that Heskey has only managed five goals for his country in this period, hasn't played since Euro 2004 and will hardly worry the Israel defence with his current goalscoring touch.

While there is an argument for using Heskey as something of a battering ram up front, the brave choice would be to use the pace of Andy Johnson alongside Owen. Johnson has played in every game for Everton this season and although he has not hit the net, has been integral in the Toffees' rise up the Premier League table.

Not restricted to just attacking predicaments, McClaren has a few more decisions to make if England are to get positive results against Israel and Russia.

In goal, Paul Robinson's recent form suggests that a change should be imminent, although it is unlikely that McClaren will bite the bullet and drop the Tottenham stopper. In fairness, the reserve option, Portsmouth's David James, has hardly excelled in recent weeks, letting an easy goal in against Chelsea and giving away a penalty at Arsenal.

Villa's Scott Carson would be the brave option in the absence of Ben Foster, although it will probably take another costly error from Robinson before McClaren makes the change.

The defence pretty much picks itself. With a string of injuries ruling out the likes of Sol Campbell, Ledley King, Wayne Bridge, Michael Dawson and Gary Neville, McClaren will choose first-choices Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Ashley Cole, although he could do with the versatile, yet internationally retired, Jamie Carragher to sure up his squad depth.

Man City's Micah Richards has excelled in the Premier League and will post an attacking threat down the right flank, that must rival Gary Neville's position in the squad. One of the best players against Germany, Richards' athleticism is an exciting prospect for McClaren and he will get another chance to prove himself on the big stage with Neville's thigh strain keeping him out for three more weeks.

A late callup for Joleon Lescott is further proof that Premier League form can get you into the full squad, although his inclusion is more enforced than the others, due to the injury situation and it is unlikely he will play much part.

England may benefit from the absence of the injured Frank Lampard in midfield, with Owen Hargreaves and Steven Gerrard able to play their natural games. While Lampard has been in good goalscoring form of late, his well documented inability to play alongside Gerrard in central midfield allows the Liverpool skipper the opportunity to surge forward, leaving Hargreaves to sit in the holding role.

Gerrard should play through the pain with a broken toe, and will surely relish the chance to express his attacking instincts in central midfield, arguably his best position for club and country. If he fails to reach the required fitness level, then Michael Carrick could get a rare opportunity to display some attacking verve in Lampard's absence.

On the flanks, McClaren has another tough decision to make. There is little doubt that he will opt for Joe Cole on the left and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right, and while there is no doubt as to the quality of these two, the inclusion of David Bentley and Ashley Young seems pointless if he is not going to use them.

Gareth Barry, too, will be chomping at the bit to get some international action after proving himself more than worthy of a chance to impress with his current form for Aston Villa.

Having a left footed player on the left wing is something England have struggled with in recent years, with neither Stuart Downing or the Ashley Cole/Wayne Bridge combination impressing enough to warrant inclusion. Barry has been continually overlooked by McClaren and would provide balance and an excellent dead-ball option. Of all the players currently lining up to play against Israel, Barry must be head of the queue, although one feels that he will be left on the sidelines again.

Bringing Bentley into the squad was a brave move after the youngster's recent actions towards the U21s, yet it was the right one. Some argued that Bentley deserved inclusion before David Beckham's recall and with Beckham's well publicised injury woes; the Blackburn winger is almost a like-for-like replacement.

To start with Bentley and replace him with the more direct running of Shaun Wright-Phillips or Ashley Young after an hour or so, would seem ideal; yet it is more likely that McClaren will use his youngsters as substitutes, if at all.

To repeat the mistake of his predecessor would be criminal. If McClaren does not use his brave selections to inject some much needed vigour into the England side, then it could be another long night for England fans. With qualification for Euro 2008 at stake, gambling may soon be McClaren's only option left.


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