Last weekend, Israel revived England’s fading hopes of qualifying for the 2008 European soccer championship by defeating Russia on a last second goal. Israel’s victory meant that England only needed a draw at home against Croatia on Wednesday (Nov. 21) to qualify for Europe.
Although England rarely loses at home, getting the necessary result was hardly a given. Croatia, under former Everton defender Slaven Bilic, has become a quality side. Moreover, England would be without three of it four starting defenders (Terry, Ferdinand, and Cole — the three experienced ones) and its two starting forwards (Owen and Rooney).
England did have available its regular goalkeeper (Robinson) and its most reliable generator of goals (David Beckham). However, manager Steve McClaren elected not to start either player. The decision would prove fatal.
In the eighth minute, goalkeeper Scott Carson, playing in only his second match for the England senior team and the first of any consequence, conceded a goal on a shot that the average high school keeper stops routinely. Six minutes after that howler, a stunned England allowed a second goal. Over the remaining half hour, England was unable to mount any serious scoring threat.
McClaren sent on Beckham to start the second half, and in the next 20 minutes England proceeded to tie the score. The second goals was the product of an amazing first-touch cross by Beckham and an equally splendid finish by Peter Crouch.
But after Beckham and Crouch provided the goal that would have seen England through, McClaren neglected to re-balance his formation. Lacking a defensive midfielder, England was unable to win the ball. A period of several minutes in which England’s only touches were two clearances by Beckham culminated in a third Croatian goal — one that Carson (or at least the Carson we see playing for Aston Villa) might well have saved. During the remaining 15 minutes, England was a basically a spent force, producing only one genuine scoring chance.
In theory, the European Championships will miss England, but it won’t miss the team that struggled through much of the qualifying tournament and lost its final two matches when a draw in either would have been enough. Had England made it through the back door, its presence would not have been well-deserved.
England has, however, taken a step in the right direction by firing McClaren. The journeyman manager’s refusal to play Beckham during most of the tournament alone justifies this decision. England now must bring in a world class manager worthy of the world class talent available to him, and capable of giving that talent a kick in backside when it fails to deliver.
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