ZAGREB: Artim Sakiri’s suggestion that England will struggle to qualify for Euro 2008 could be dismissed as the bitter ramblings of a player who failed to make the impact he would have hoped for during his spell in English football with West Brom.
But if England do not take something from today’s encounter with an on-form Croatia, it will not be easy to take issue with the Macedonian playmaker’s damning assessment of the limitations of Steve McClaren’s star-filled side.
Speaking after his country had secured a well-deserved 0-0 draw with England at Old Trafford on Saturday, Sakiri remarked acidly that the Group E whipping boys Andorra had given them a tougher work out.
Predictable, poor in attack and short of ideas: Sakiri’s undiplomatic onslaught pulled no punches. Worryingly for McClaren, neither did his erstwhile admirers among the England media pack, which appears to have undergone one of its regular collective mood swings: the buzz of optimism that had greeted the new manager’s opening games giving way to the more familiar drone of discontented grumbling.
As tactically and technically inept as any performance under Sven-Goran Eriksson was one pundit’s caustic verdict on the Macedonia display.
The honeymoon period is over and McClaren knows from his experience of working under Eriksson how quickly an England manager can move from that stage to the point where divorce solicitors are being consulted.
If he is to avoid that fate, he must galvanise his players into producing a markedly improved performance against a side that have never lost a competitive international on home soil.
It will not be easy. A carelessly earned yellow card in the Macedonia match means England will be missing Steven Gerrard in midfield. And if recent performances are anything to go by, there is a good chance that Wayne Rooney may also not be fully present.
“The intensity we normally have was not quite there on Saturday and we have to get that back,” said McClaren, who is understood to be contemplating a radical tactical shake-up to face a Croatian team that are on a high after knocking seven goals past Andorra on Saturday, four of them coming from Mladen Petric.
With Gerrard unable to occupy the right-midfield berth and McClaren declining to recall David Beckham to his squad, the manager has a choice between gambling on Shaun Wright-Phillips in that role or reshuffling his pack into a 3-5-2 formation.
That would mean deploying Ashley Cole and either Wright-Phillips or Phil Neville as wingbacks in the hope of addressing Sakiri’s “predictable” taunt.
Formations alone however will not solve England’s problems and McClaren is painfully aware that his side need an upturn in the form and confidence of both Rooney and Frank Lampard, whose disappointing World Cup displays have carried over into what is beginning to look like a full-blown slump.
There is no doubt that the Chelsea midfielder will earn his 50th cap but he is aware that he has now been trading on his reputation a little too long for comfort.
“Getting my 50th cap will give a little bit of impetus on Wednesday but I always push myself anyway,” he said. “We’ve got to go to Croatia and stand up and be counted. I’ll do that anyway.”
Lampard is under no illusions as to how difficult it will be against the side managed by his old West Ham team-mate Slaven Bilic.
“We will have a tough time in Russia and Israel but I’d say this is our hardest fixture in the group,” he said.
“Seeing them at the World Cup – they gave Brazil a really tough game, they’ve got good technical players and they will have a red-hot crowd behind them. Dropping points on Saturday has put a little bit more pressure on us but we have to stay together as a team.” – AFP