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The Toe Poke
By ESPN Staff

McClaren backs Owen to fire England to victory

Steve McClaren is confident Michael Owen can fire England to a crucial Euro 2008 victory over Israel at Wembley this evening.

With 37 goals to his name, Owen currently lies sixth on the all-time England list, 12 adrift of record marksman Sir Bobby Charlton.

As his team approach the point of no return in their bid to reach next summer's Finals in Austria and Switzerland, McClaren would settle for a single strike from the 27-year-old against the obdurate Israelis, provided, of course, his own team manage to keep a clean sheet.

The signs are positive for McClaren too.

After 18 injury-ravaged months, Owen has struck twice in as many games for Newcastle and, at England's London Colney training HQ, the prolific forward has been at his impressive best.

And there are strong signals emerging that Owen's old mate Emile Heskey will partner him this evening.

Heskey will become the first outfield Wigan player to represent England, and end an international exile stretching back to the opening game of Euro 2004 against France.

But it is Owen who will benefit the most as McClaren knows the former Liverpool player has a productive past with Heskey, scoring 14 goals between them in 12 international starts together.

'Michael has looked sharper with every day,' said McClaren. 'Never mind the work he does outside the box and who he needs to play with, the main thing Michael brings us is goals at vital times.

'There have been so many times when we have not looked like scoring and all of a sudden he has glanced one in at the near post or nicked one off his shin.

'He is always on the spot and what we must do is get the ball into areas where Michael is at his best.'

McClaren has refused to give any pointer about Owen's likely strike partner, although it does appear to be a straight choice between Andrew Johnson and Heskey.

However, with his fourth-placed team requiring victory to put themselves in contention for a qualifying berth out of Group E, McClaren was more forthcoming about other areas of his side.

Steven Gerrard will start - without requiring an injection to numb the pain from his broken toe - while Gareth Barry is thought to be standing by in case Owen Hargreaves fails a late fitness test on his thigh strain.

And, contrary to popular opinion, Paul Robinson will remain in goal, holding off a fierce challenge to his place from David James, who had been tipped to take over following the Tottenham man's high-profile blunder against Germany last month.

'I could never guarantee a player a starting position but the one principle I have got, especially with goalkeepers is that I stick with them.

'I wanted to look at the Germany game sensibly, after all the hysteria had been taken away and I made the decision two or three days afterwards.

'I told Paul I trusted him and was sticking with him on Thursday night and he was obviously relieved and delighted.'