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Sep 13, 2007

Fortune hands McClaren sense of balance

The doom and gloom that shrouded England's future following dire displays in Tel Aviv and Barcelona has been comprehensively dispelled after two 3-0 victories from matches in which Steve McClaren's side were expected to struggle.

Such was the fatalism that swathes of the press were even predicting that the Euro 2008 qualifying double-header against Israel and Russia at Wembley would spell the end for McClaren. Instead England have climbed into second place in Group E, their future is in their own hands and McClaren sits content in the knowledge that his squad of players are finally playing like a team.

The 3-0 win against Russia on Wednesday night erased the question marks that remained following Saturday's victory against a poor Israel team and provided the added bonus that the England coaching staff had got one over highly-rated coach Guus Hiddink, the man the FA targeted as a potential England manager ahead of the current incumbent.

Yet while the coaching staff must rightly take the plaudits for identifying the weaknesses of the opposition and successfully exploiting them, there was huge dose of fortune in the way they stumbled upon what can now be deemed England's most effective line-up during McClaren's reign.

Injuries robbed England of Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Gary Neville but, in the absence of those regular starters, with the added loss of the recalled David Beckham, their replacements outshone and outperformed their predecessors to bring a cohesion that had been missing from previous England teams.

Thanks to Aston Villa skipper Gareth Barry, and a spate of injuries, the tiresome debate over whether Lampard and Gerrard can dovetail in the England midfield can finally be put to bed. Even if they could complement each other, which they obviously can't, they simply do not do so as well as Gerrard and Barry.

In Lampard, England have an excellent club player but he and Gerrard together are square pegs in round holes. The former West Ham midfielder might be the driving force in Chelsea's expensively assembled midfield, but in enhancing the England team Barry has exposed Lampard's lack of prowess.

Against Israel, and then Russia, Barry's almost instant understanding and communication with Gerrard brought balance to a previously disharmonious area of the pitch. Whilst Lampard and Gerrard seemingly try to outdo each other and put their individual cases to a divided nation, Barry was happy to suppress his ego and allow Gerrard a platform to foray forward.

Not that Barry was outperformed by the Liverpool star - quite the opposite. The 26-year-old provided the assists to three of England's six goals, but, more importantly his scampering and simplicity of passing in midfield kept the team ticking over in such a way that must have left the watching Lampard feeling uneasy about his future in the team.

Whilst Lampard too often looks for the Hollywood ball and England subsequently squander possession Barry's almost faultless distribution was considered, probing and effective. The Villa skipper was not afraid of taking his time, dropping deep to take possession from the defence he shielded and always offered a simple outlet for more harried midfielders.

Even the simple fact that he is a left-footed player operating in central midfield offered passing options that were previously denied to England's attack.

Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill insisted his skipper would not let England down if called upon but Barry did much more than that, he may have made himself undroppable.

The same could also be said of Heskey, who returned from three years in the international wilderness after injuries to Rooney, Darren Bent and a suspension for Peter Crouch left McClaren's original squad short of options. The Wigan Athletic striker resumed his partnership with Owen against Israel and had such an impact that he retained his place against Russia, despite Crouch returning from his one-match suspension.

Neither Israel nor Russia, could deal with the 29-year-old's physicality. His ability to win headers and flick-ons gave Russia's previously stingy defence - they had conceded just one goal in Euro 2008 qualifying - a problem they could not deal with. Heskey's dominance over any of Russia's three centre-backs was such that it was shock when he didn't win his battle.

Owen thrived on the selfless performance of his strike partner and the Newcastle striker's second goal, from a Heskey knock-down, became his 14th goal in 14 starts alongside his former Liverpool colleague. No surprise then that, prior to Wednesday's match with Russia, Owen, who is now only nine goals behind Bobby Charlton's record of 49 England goals, risked a rebuke from McClaren by urging the England manager to start Heskey ahead of Crouch.

Although purists may baulk at the 'big man-little man' combination, on the current evidence Owen and Heskey do it extremely well.

Elsewhere, the pacey combination of Micah Richards and Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right flank threatens to spell the end of the Gary Neville and David Beckham axis that has served England for so long.

Whilst Wright-Phillips crossing doesn't come anywhere close to Beckham's, or Richard's experience even approach that of Neville, the duo have certainly done enough to retain their places for England's next match, against Estonia, at Wembley, on October 13 - as have the rest of England's new and recalled faces.

Fortune has been benevolent enough for McClaren to stumble upon a winning formula and the big question now is does the England manager have the courage to stick with a winning first eleven that would exclude players such as Rooney or Lampard?

Both players are world class performers but England have just delivered two of their most convincing back to back performances in recent memory in the absence of the Chelsea and Manchester United stars.

Neither Barry nor Heskey deserve to be dropped and as the old idiom goes: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.