Austria coach hoping for England recovery
VIENNA, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Austria coach Josef Hickersberger has expressed his support for under-fire England counterpart Steve McClaren ahead of their friendly in Vienna on Friday.
Hickersberger, whose team qualified as co-hosts of next year's European Championship, said the tournament would be worse off if England failed to reach the finals.
'It's been a poor start of course to McClaren's career as national coach because he hasn't got the results he has deserved,' Hickersberger said on Wednesday.
'I have followed his career closely since he was coaching Middlesbrough because one of my players, Emanuel Pogatetz, is playing there, and after that when he became England's assistant coach.
'Of course it is very difficult for him now to convince the whole country that he is a very good coach. But I hope he gets the luck he needs now in the last few matches, especially as he needs results from other teams for England to qualify.'
To have any realistic chance of qualifying for Euro 2008, England have to win their last remaining Group E match against Croatia next Wednesday and hope that Russia fail to win one of their final two games against Israel and tiny Andorra.
'To be honest I hope England make it, because they are one of the best national teams in the world,' Hickersberger said. 'For that reason it would be poor for the championships if they took place without England.'
Hickersberger has himself faced a barrage of media criticism this year following a miserable run of results for his team.
Austria matched an all-time national record of nine matches without a win before finally recording their first victory of 2007 with a 3-2 defeat of Ivory Coast last month.
The team's performances even prompted a group of fans to launch a petition urging Austria to pull out of Euro 2008 and give their automatic spot to the best team that missed out in the qualifying competition.
'Of course getting our first win of the year has eased the situation and improved the atmosphere in Austria, which was very important for the team and for me as the national coach as well,' Hickersberger said.
'Now we have to build on the performance against the Ivory Coast when we play England. Even if they are struggling to qualify for Euro 2008 they are still a very good side with regular Champions League participants and even winners in their ranks - which is sadly not the case for us.'
After suffering from a blight of injuries during his team's year-long slump, Hickersberger said his squad was almost back to full strength for Friday's friendly.
In contrast to England, who are without first team regulars Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Owen Hargreaves and Rio Ferdinand, Austria's only worries are over experienced defenders Martin Stranzl and Martin Hiden.
Both sustained light muscle strains during training on Wednesday but are expected to be fit for Friday's encounter.
While they can apparently expect a warm welcome from the Austrian coach, England's players could be in for a cold night with snowstorms forecast to hit Vienna on Thursday.
'We have underground heating at the stadium, though, so they won't actually have to play on snow,' Hickersberger said with a grin. 'That is a shame for us perhaps because on snow I think we would definitely be stronger than the English.'