England have missed out on qualification for Euro 2008 and few people could argue that it wasn’t exactly what they deserved.
The final nail in a dismal qualifying campaign was hammered home by Croatia last night as they scored a 3-2 victory over England at Wembley. Niko Krancjar scored the opener after a Jens Lehmann-esque fumble by English goalkeeper Scott Carson on his competitive international debut and the Croatians raced to a 2-0 lead after Ivica Olic slotted home after fine work by Arsenal forward Eduardo da Silva.
England regrouped after half-time and levelled the game after Frank Lampard slotted home a penalty and Peter Crouch finished well after a lovely cross from substitute David Beckham. But with the game looking poised to end in a draw, Mladen Petric fired home the winner from distance on 77 minutes. And with Russia sneaking past Andorra 1-0 it means that they and not England will be joining Croatia in Austria & Switzerland next summer.
In some ways it was a cruel way to go out but in others it was completely justified and predictable. England fumbled their way through qualifying and the fact that they ended on the same amount of points as Israel is evidence of just how poorly they performed. Manager Steve McClaren never quite got a grasp of what he was doing and his team selection against Croatia was a final reminder of his fallibilities as a tactician. Removing Gareth Barry and David Beckham was a big mistake, as was calling up Carson for his competitive debut in a match of such importance. These are errors a world-class manager does not make and McClaren has shown himself to be nothing more than a failure.
Although I can sympathise with the English supporters about their early elimination the simple fact is that this should provide a necessary reality check for the FA to get their act together and make the appropriate changes to improve their nation’s performances at an international level. Too much emphasis in recent times has been placed on the need for a foreign player quota in the Premiership, but that explanation for their failure is just not feasible. England had the players to do the job against Croatia and indeed to qualify well before the very last match, but a combination of poor management and inflated superstar egos ensured their attempts were in vain.
A failure to find the right blend
England’s biggest problem over McClaren’s and even Sven-Goran Eriksson’s tenure was an apparent need to play the best players available, regardless of where and how they fit into the team setup. Fine players that they may be, it has been shown time and time again that Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard do not work well together in the centre of the pitch. But still McClaren persisted with the incompatible combination even after the successful integration of Barry while Lampard was out with injury.
The situation can be compared to Mathieu Flamini’s emergence as a key player this season for Arsenal. The Frenchman came into the side in the place of a jet-lagged Gilberto Silva at the start of the season and has not looked back. He formed a vital partnership with Spaniard Cesc Fabregas and has convinced manager Arsene Wenger to keep him in the side at the expense of the more experienced and arguably more talented Brazilian.
All McClaren had to do was make a couple of decisions like this to create some competition for places within his side and I’m sure he would have received an improved performance from his players. As it was, he did not, and his punishment was a failed qualifying run and inevitable termination of his employment with the FA.
I hope England learn from this, I really do. In my eyes, the potential is there to win a European Championship or even the World Cup. But for that dream to be realised, the FA needs to employ a manager who can bring the superstars together and put them in their place. It could be someone with a clear pedigree like Jose Mourinho or Fabio Capello or just someone who has the right sort of attitude, like Croatia’s Slaven Bilic. Whoever it turns out to be, they need to have the mentality that the best players do not necessarily make the best team, or England will continue to underachieve at the top level for a little while longer yet.
What do you think?
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