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Oct 19, 2007

McClaren's obituary already penned

Steve McClaren's future as England manager hangs as precariously in the balance as England's hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 after what the Yorkshireman termed 'five minutes of madness' in Moscow helped Russia claim a smash and grab 2-1 victory in midweek.

With England leading 1-0, a dubious penalty decision and a mistake from calamity goalkeeper Paul Robinson gifted Russian sub Roman Pavluchenko two goals and handed Guus Hiddink's team the advantage in the battle to qualify for the European Championships.

England, who hit the panic button in Moscow once captain Steven Gerrard had missed a virtual open goal in the 51st minute to make it 2-0 to England, must now rely on other teams to do them a favour if they are to make the trip to Austria/Switzerland in the summer.

The permutations of what must happen for England to qualify are many, each entailing at least one unlikely result, and boil down to the following lottery:

  • If Russia fail to take maximum points in their two remaining matches against Israel, who have no chance to qualify, and Group E whipping boys Andorra and England beat group leaders Croatia then McClaren saves his job and England qualify.

  • If Russia take only three points from their last two qualifiers then England can afford to draw with Croatia. England could even lose to Croatia and still qualify; but only if Russia take no more than two points from their remaining two matches.

  • England can also qualify if Croatia, unbeaten in qualifying so far, slip to defeat in Macedonia and then lose 2-0, or by three goals, against England at Wembley.

    Confused? Well think of it like this: November the 17 is D-Day. As England travel to Austria for a friendly Macedonia host Croatia and Israel host Russia. If by the end of the day Russia have not dropped points in Tel Aviv or Croatia have not lost in Skopje then England will be out and their final match against Croatia at Wembley on November 21 is irrelevant - given that Russia will not lose in Andorra on the same day.

    In short, the out look is bleak and failure to qualify will almost certainly doom McClaren to the sack; just as Graham Taylor's failure to qualify for World Cup 1994 saw him likened to a turnip by England's most popular newspaper The Sun - who have also turned against the current incumbent - and given the boot.

    And just as Taylor cites the failure to send off Ronald Koeman, who then went on to score the winner for Holland against England in a vital qualifier, as the death knell to his tenure, McClaren will surely blame those crazy five minutes. Yet it went wrong long before then for the former Boro boss.

    Even the day of his appointment was tinged with disappointment as he was neither first, nor second choice to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England manager. McClaren, who had won only the Carling Cup as a club manager, was handed the job due to the lack of alternatives and on the back of somewhat fortuitous run to the 2006 UEFA Cup final with Middlesbrough.

    His early tenure with the Three Lions was strewn with mistakes and poor results, including the 3-5-2 experiment in Croatia that resulted in a 2-0 defeat and a performance that was shambles, even if the result was somewhat expected. Worse was the 0-0 home draw against Macedonia at Old Trafford in November and the failure to win, or score, in Israel in March. It is points dropped against the latter two minnows, and not away to Russia and Croatia, that will ultimately prove costly.

    McClaren's continued obsession with the disfunctional Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard axis in midfield invited more criticism and below par performances. It was not until the former Manchester United assistant stumbled upon the Gareth Barry-Gerrard combination that England produce their best displays under McClaren - including three 3-0 wins over Israel, Russia and Estonia; results that set up Wednesday's crunch match in Russia.

    Whichever way the result went at the Luzhniki Stadium it would be defining for McClaren's England career. Hero or Villain?

    In Moscow the crazy decision to give Joleon Lescott his full debut at left-back as a replacement for Ashley Cole was dubious, but to ask the Everton defender to tuck in and operate in a more central position was folly; it was the weakness opposing manager Guus Hiddink seized upon to turn the fortunes of his Russian side at half-time.

    'We got a lot of space on our right-hand side during the first-half,' said Hiddink. 'The final touch was not good enough but the threat was there.'

    'When you have Joe Cole playing left-back [covering for Lescott] like that, you know you can damage them,' he added. 'We were already a threat, which is why I made the change at half-time.'

    The change was to bring on Pavluchenko and put further pressure on Chelsea winger Cole defensively. And while Cole acquitted himself well Hiddink's plan robbed England of a key attacking threat, forcing McClaren's men to defend deeper and deeper as mistakes became inevitable.

    England goalscorer Rooney, dropping deep to help his now embattled defence, eventually committed the foul on Konstantin Zyryanov that that lead to Russia's equaliser from the penalty spot - despite the Manchester United forward committing the foul outside the box. A 'disgraceful' decision from Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo, according to McClaren.

    The Bears' winner also had a hint of fortune, although Robinson's critics would say inevitability, as the England goalkeeper palmed a shot straight back into the danger area, in what has become something a trademark error, and Pavluchenko plundered his second goal.

    Whilst it is clear that both of Russia's goals had a hint of fortune, tactical errors on the the night in Moscow and England's doomed penchant of dropping deep to protect a 1-0 lead contributed to the national team's downfall. Early errors and dropped points during McClaren's tenure made Russia's fortune on Wednesday pivotal rather than irrelevant.

    Hiddink, a continued target for the FA despite their botched approach to the Dutchman prior to McClaren's appointment as England manager, won the tactical battle in Group E and has seemingly handed the England manager his P45.

    Although England still have a mathematical chance of qualifying for Euro 2008 the obituaries for Steve McClaren's career as England manager are already written.


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