2 of 10 people who visits my blog use Firefox!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Fever rising for Israel-England match

England arrived in Israel late Thursday for a match under-fire coach Steve McClaren dare not lose.

Defeat on Saturday could seriously endanger England's chances of qualifying for the European Championship finals next year.

And just eight months into the job, McClaren's fate could be prematurely decided if his winless streak extends to five matches at Ramat Gan Stadium.

The pressure is getting to his underachieving squad.

"It hurts an awful lot when you don't get the right results," midfielder Steven Gerrard said.

"We are in the results business and we will get judged on results. We have been criticized and rightly so. It is time to take it on the chin, get on with it and start performing."

After four games in Group E, England is three points behind leader Croatia, one point behind Russia and level with Israel and Macedonia. Only two teams qualify automatically.

The campaign started emphatically with two wins in September - a 5-0 demolition of lowly Andorra and an assured 1-0 in Macedonia.

But the bubble burst for McClaren in October's qualifiers with an uninspiring goalless draw with Macedonia, and a 2-0 defeat in Croatia for which blundering goalkeeper Paul Robinson was vilified.

Preparations for Saturdays qualifier have been hampered by the involvement of 14 players in demanding FA Cup replays on Monday.

But failure against the emerging Israelis is not an option.

"I am trying not to think about missing the European Championship - I am thinking about qualification," said Gerrard, who received the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to soccer from Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday.

"We do need to start winning quickly because our results over the past few games have not been good enough."

Injuries and a suspension have deprived McClaren of his favored fullbacks - Gary Neville, Wayne Bridge, Micah Richards and Ashley Cole.

Neville's brother Phil and Liverpool's Jamie Carragher look likely to fill the void.

The injury crisis extends to the forward line.

McClaren has been forced to draft in David Nugent of Championship side Preston with Darren Bent and Peter Crouch ruled out.

He is likely to field Wayne Rooney and either Everton's Andy Johnson or Tottenham's Jermain Defoe in attack.

In midfield, though, McClaren has powerful options with Owen Hargreaves back from a broken leg and set to combine in the center with Frank Lampard. Aaron Lennon and Gerrard are the preferred options on the flanks.

Israel recognizes these threats while quietly confident of causing an upset, helped by its intimidating fans.

"There is no doubt that England is a stronger team than Israel but I hope and believe that if things come together then we will be able to win," coach Dror Kashtan said ahead of the first competitive meeting between the sides.

The last major tournament England failed to reach was the 1994 World Cup, which led to the axing of Graham Taylor.

Like McClaren - formerly with Middlesbrough - Taylor took charge of the national side after a largely undistinguished record with Aston Villa.

Meanwhile, Israel captain Yossi Benayoun came through Thursday's training without any problems. The West Ham midfielder had been out of action for four weeks with a groin injury.

Since arriving in Israel on Sunday, Benayoun had completed three practices, and the playmaker will start.

"There is no doubt that England is a stronger team than Israel but I hope and believe that if things come together then we will be able to win," Israel coach Dror Kashtan said.