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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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By ESPN Staff

England are still a world power, insists Owen

Michael Owen insists England are a major force in world football - even if their Euro 2008 campaign comes to a crushing end on Saturday night.

Although mathematics dictate England will enter their final game against Croatia on Wednesday with something to play for no matter what happens this weekend, reality suggests Andorra will not deny Russia the win they need to qualify if Guus Hiddink's men overcome Israel in Tel Aviv.

Such an unpalatable scenario will expose coach Steve McClaren to a bear-pit atmosphere at Wembley, which could bring an end to his stint as England coach after just 18 games in charge.

Owen has already joined a lengthy line of team-mates willing to back McClaren, who he believes has grown into a job he would certainly no wish to do himself.

But the Newcastle striker accepts England would have no-one to blame but themselves if it all goes disastrously wrong.

'Every player is fully behind the manager to turn this qualification around,' said Owen.

'But I don't think he is looking for excuses. If we don't qualify, I am sure he will hold up his hands and say: `We should have done.' I think everyone will do that.'

Given most pundits have a negative perception of Sven-Goran Eriksson's tenure, even though the Swede guided England to an unprecedented three successive tournament quarter-finals, McClaren's stint at the helm is hardly going to be judged positively.

Yet Owen does not believe English supporters are alone in wondering why they so consistently fail to land big international prizes.

As a former Real Madrid player, the 27-year-old knows how badly Spain suffer. And irrespective of how the situation unfolds for England, Owen feels they will still be regarded in a positive light.

'We are a proud nation that wants to be competing in all the big tournaments,' he said.

'But we are a major force in football. In the last dozen years or so we seem to get to every major tournament and then into the last eight.

'We could easily have gone on to win one of them but there is such a fine line at the top and you do need that little bit of luck.

'It sounds like the old English hard luck story but Spain, with their massive reputation, are struggling to qualify again. They have one of the best leagues in the world, so I am sure they are saying the same things as us.'

Although it was defeat on the synthetic pitch at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow which left England in their current perilous state, Owen believes it was results earlier in the Group E campaign that are the major cause, especially the home draw with Macedonia.

In a group where Macedonia, Estonia and Andorra have lost every game they have played against the major countries - including Israel - with the exception of that tame goalless draw at Old Trafford 13 months ago, those two dropped points are now starting to haunt McClaren at a time when Owen feels the former Middlesbrough coach is looking more like the real deal than ever before.

'Steve McClaren is a great manager,' he said.

'He is very hands-on and does almost everything.

'If you look at results and performances over the past six months or so, you would definitely say he is growing into the job.

'He was with us for a long time before he got the top job which was certainly an advantage. But the longer you are in a job the more you understand it.

'Personally, I like Steve. He is a good bloke and it is natural players would back him.

'But there is no hiding the fact we should be qualifying out of this group.'

Owen was not part of the squad that drew in Israel last March either.

But he has been told enough about the Tel Aviv trip to know Russia will not have it easy this weekend, underpinning the belief within English circles that Group E may have one last twist to take ahead of the final round of games.

'Israel is a tough place to go,' said Owen.

'They have a cracking home record, which bears that out. Maybe it is odds-against at the moment but we just have to hope.'

Joleon Lescott's appearance in central defence alongside Sol Campbell in training suggests the Everton man will be asked to fill the vacancy created by the absence of first-choice duo John Terry and Rio Ferdinand for Friday's friendly with Austria in Vienna.

With Ashley Cole still not quite match-fit, Chelsea team-mate Wayne Bridge may fill the left-back role, although there was no hint as to whether Scott Carson will be handed his debut in goal.

As injury has also robbed England of the services of Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney, whose Manchester United team-mate Owen Hargreaves has remained in the north-west for treatment on a knee injury and will only be called upon against Croatia if a victory is required for qualification, Owen will be partnered in attack by Peter Crouch, who has suddenly hit a bit of form for Liverpool.

'Peter is a top player,' said Owen.

'He has a good scoring record with England and although he has probably not played as much for Liverpool as he would like, when he has played, he has done really well.

'I know him well and we have done quite well together in the past. If he gets his chance, he will not let anyone down.'