McClaren ready for his date with destiny

THE phoney war is over.

After the fifth, and easiest, of a successive run of three-goal wins, England and Steve McClaren move forward to their date with destiny in Moscow knowing success or failure will probably determine their Euro 2008 fate.

Win on Wednesday and England will have booked their place in Austria and Switzerland next summer with a month to spare, draw and they can at least begin to dust off their passports. Defeat, however, and McClaren’s next major journey might be to the job centre.

On the evidence of these last two months, the latter scenario is the least likely to unfold. And while the more astute punter would still be putting his money on stalemate on the Luzhniki Stadium’s plastic pitch, McClaren and his team have every reason to approach their task with confidence.

Barring an unforeseen disaster, Estonia were never going to offer England much of a threat. But, apart from Ashley Cole’s unfortunate ankle injury, which has ruled him out of the Russia trip, the weekend could not have unfolded much better for the England coach.

In sticking with Gareth Barry above Frank Lampard, McClaren’s judgement was proved spot-on.

Once more, the Aston Villa man excelled and, although Steven Gerrard did not have the best of games, Liverpool’s inspiration is without question operating with far greater freedom than he has ever done with Frank Lampard alongside him.

And up front, Wayne Rooney finally scored a competitive England goal, an incredible 1,211 days since his last one.

Not that you would have noticed any sense of anxiety given the way he rocketed Joe Cole’s cross beyond the hapless Mart Poom, who had already gifted Shaun Wright-Phillips England’s opener.

McClaren had deliberately damned Rooney with faint praise in the build-up to Saturday’s match, labelling the forward “potentially world-class.” Judging by Rooney’s busy, bustling performance, the trick worked a treat.

“When players of this standard receive criticism, they have to prove themselves on the pitch,” McClaren said. “That is exactly what Wayne has done. Now he has to do is consistently. He admitted himself he had a point to prove and he has gone a long way to doing that.

“We all know Wayne is a threat and I repeat, he has the potential to be world class. I am delighted with his goal but his overall contribution to the team was very good. He got better and better as the game went on.”

Yet it is not all about Rooney, not by a long shot.

Ask McClaren to offer one word to sum up the staggering improvement which has taken him from the brink of dismissal during the aberration against Andorra in March to his present elevated stature and he will come up with the same answer every time – teamwork.

His message appears to be getting through as, finally, instead of having a bunch of talented individuals trying to implement his game-plan, McClaren has a group eager to buy into a collective ethic.

He may be tinkering with the idea of a 4-3-3 formation in Russia, which would trigger the restoration of Lampard to his starting line-up but the most obvious fall guy, Wright-Phillips, is now a scorer on two of his last three England starts and now appears capable of causing the same kind of havoc which brought him to prominence at Manchester City.

True, it took a bizarre own-goal from Taavi Rahn to seal a fifth successive three-goal win in England’s Group E qualifying campaign and the hosts’ performance did fade badly once Cole departed in the second half.

But the positive spin on that dip was that England, having won the game already, were merely storing up energy for the greater challenge that lies ahead.

ENGLAND (4-4-2): Robinson 6, Richards 7, Campbell 7, Ferdinand 6 (Lescott 46, 5), Ashley Cole 6 (Neville 49, 6), Wright-Phillips 7, Gerrard 7, Barry 8, Joe Cole 7, Rooney 7, Owen 6 (Lampard 70, 5). Subs Not Used: James, Bentley, Crouch, Defoe.

ESTONIA (4-3-3): Poom 5, Kruglov 5, Stepanov 4, Piiroja 4, Jaager 5, Rahn 3, Klavan 5, Dmitrijev 5, Lindpere 4, Kink 4 (Viikmae 62, 5), Saag 5. Subs Not Used: Aksalu, Allas, Reim, Rooba, Barengrub, Terehhov.

REFEREE: Nicolai Vollquartz (Denmark) 7 A decisive, assured performance, although there were no controversial moments to test the officials.

MATCH RATING: ** A non-contest, so never likely to be remembered with much affection, but England will be happy enough. Improvements, however, will be needed in Moscow.

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