England booed off after loss to Spain

England were booed off after crashing to a first home defeat since November 2003 to heap more pressure on Steve McClaren ahead of next month’s Euro 2008 qualifier with Israel.

England 0 Spain 1

England were booed off after crashing to a first home defeat since November 2003 to heap more pressure on Steve McClaren ahead of next month’s Euro 2008 qualifier with Israel.

After a disastrous October double-header, McClaren’s men appeared to have stopped the rot with a decent performance in Holland in November.

The winter months seem to have had a negative impact on an admittedly injury-hit side, who started well but slowly subsided and eventually lost to a side beaten by Northern Ireland in September after Andrés Iniesta’s well-taken second-half effort.

McClaren can rightly claim the availability of Owen Hargreaves, Wayne Rooney and Aaron Lennon could have a substantial impact on the effectiveness of his team in their must-not-lose visit to the Middle East.

With only new arrivals Kieron Dyer and Jonathan Woodgate, plus skipper Steven Gerrard, really impressing among the outfield contingent, McClaren will also be struggling to offer supporters that much hope of a substantial improvement.

The fans' verdict was summed up in no small manner by sustained boos at the final whistle and again as the coach headed down the tunnel.

One straw McClaren can clutch at, providing the player stays fit, is the way Dyer performed.

These days, at the highest level, pace is essential.

Dyer is speedy and, allied to his ability to run with the ball and use space intelligently, it is little wonder McClaren has been so quick to welcome the injury-plagued Newcastle man back into the international fold.

It took Dyer no time to prove how comfortable he is in these surroundings, picking up possession in deep positions and threatening to unhinge Spain’s defence with his direct running.

In Shaun Wright-Phillips, England did not have another wide man capable of having the same kind of impact.

Having now spent the best part of two seasons warming the Chelsea bench, it is perhaps too much to expect Wright-Phillips to deliver his brand of mazy running onto the England scene. On too many occasions, the little winger threatened much, yet delivered virtually nothing.

The contrast between Dyer and Wright-Phillips summed up England’s performance: some genuine moments of encouragement, but more of head-shaking despair.

At the back, Woodgate, whose three-year absence from the England team is a season longer than Dyer’s, slotted in alongside old Leeds team-mate Ferdinand in a manner that suggested it is not completely automatic absent skipper John Terry will return in Tel Aviv on March 24.

The absence of a clinical finisher up front counterbalanced that particular piece of positivity.

Peter Crouch may have boasted an impressive scoring record of 11 goals in 16 games for his country prior to tonight’s encounter, but most of them have come against second-rate nations.

Picked out superbly by Gerrard and offered even more space by Dyer’s unselfish cross-penalty-box burst that diverted the attentions of two markers, Crouch’s first touch let him down and his shot bobbled wide.

In fact, the only player to test Iker Casillas during the opening period was Michael Carrick, who drove an early shot at the Spain goalkeeper.

Not that debutant Ben Foster was that much busier. He should have been beaten when Miguel Angel Angulo squared an inspired pass to Fernando Morientes, but, having skipped past Gary Neville, the man who spent 18 unconvincing months at Liverpool did little to enhance his reputation by blazing over.

Foster’s quick feet allowed him to back-pedal his way out of the trouble Neville looked to have dumped him in with an understrength throw-in, with the on-loan Watford keeper marking his first competitive appearance at Old Trafford with a nerveless header to safety under pressure from David Villa.

Gerrard’s departure at the interval triggered the introduction of Gareth Barry but it also robbed England of their major creative force.

Dyer continued to probe and Wright-Phillips and Neville both went close but it was Spain who carried the greater threat and Villa brought the best save of the match out of Foster with a 20-yard shot just before the hour.

On their next attack, Spain took the lead, with Ferdinand unable to do anything more than get the faintest flick to Villa’s cross. Iniesta had only been on the field seven minutes but he was warm enough to fire a spectacular 20-yard shot into the top corner.

England huffed and puffed in their search for an equaliser without doing anything particularly convincing.

McClaren’s decision to replace an ineffective Frank Lampard with Joey Barton for the final 10 minutes breathed new life into the crowd, but it had no impact on the final outcome.

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