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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 15:14 GMT
How to beat Croatia
By Sam Lyon

It's better to be a lucky manager than a good manager, so the saying goes, and Steve McClaren was surely a man counting his blessings last Saturday.

Steve McClaren
McClaren has a lot to consider ahead of Wednesday's qualifier

Israel's 2-1 win over Russia ensured England's dream of gracing Austria and Switzerland was alive and well again.

And it also means McClaren has one more chance to prove his credentials as a national coach who can inspire his players and tactically out-manoeuvre opposition managers.

England need only draw at home against Croatia now to secure their passage to Euro 2008 and, in doing so, cement McClaren's place as national coach at least until next summer.

BBC Sport consults the experts to consider how England should go about getting the result they need against Croatia on Wednesday night.


If history teaches us anything, it is that final qualifying games rarely run smoothly when it comes to England.

Sir Alf Ramsay and Don Revie saw England crash out in 1973 and 1977 to Poland and Italy, while Graham Taylor did "not like that" when his side's 2-0 defeat in Holland effectively ended their hopes of World Cup '94 qualification.


And even when England have progressed, it has often been a struggle.

Only a Gary Lineker volley 13 minutes from time in Poland saw England into Euro 1992, while neither goalless draw against Northern Ireland and Italy in 1985 and 1997 came easily.

And who can forget the fact that England had to rely on a last-gasp David Beckham free-kick against Greece in 2001 to see them into the 2002 World Cup finals?

England, you have been warned...


While a 2-0 or three-goal win for England on Wednesday would see them top Group E, and therefore aid their seeding for next summer's championship, a point is all McClaren's men need to progress.

So what about the psychology of approaching a match when a draw is all you require?

"Being positive is the key," Lineker tells BBC Sport. "The one thing we are not very good at is setting our stall out for a draw. We are not Italians.

Gary Lineker and Graham Taylor
We must play our normal, progressive, pressing game

Gary Lineker

Our culture is to play to win. If you play for a draw you are likely to get beat

Graham Taylor

"We must play our normal pressing game. We have got to try and rattle them and not start messing about to just try and make sure we get the draw we require to get through."

It's an approach that is greeted with wholehearted agreement across our experts.

Graham Taylor says: "Our culture is to play to win. If you play for a draw you are likely to get beat," while BBC Sport's football expert Mark Lawrenson adds: "You have to occupy their defenders. If you allow them to come on to you, Croatia will punish you."

Gary Mabbutt, who set up Lineker's crucial equaliser in the qualifying draw with Poland in 1991, says: "There's no doubt you have to be secure defensively, but if you don't set the tempo to the game it could well be disastrous."

But, ex-international Trevor Francis warns, do not let the occasion or the Wembley crowd prompt any "silliness": "First and foremost we have to make sure we are solid at the back and in midfield so that we get that all-important point."


So, play for a win is the message - but how will that be affected by the fact that an injury crisis has robbed McClaren of his first-choice pairings both up front and at centre-half?

The absence of Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry ensures McClaren's team selection and tactics will come under the spotlight more than ever.

And when Paul Robinson's debatable form and the Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard debate are thrown into the mix, it would appear the match-day XI far from picks itself.

Most of our experts expect Robinson to start in goal, while in defence it would appear the back four - depending on Ashley Cole's match fitness - will most likely include Micah Richards, Sol Campbell, Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge.

However, the midfield debate is far from clear.

Taylor, Lawrenson and Francis all opt for a five-man midfield with Peter Crouch alone up front.

"For me, you have to have Lampard in your side because he is a goalscorer," says Taylor. "Personally, I would string five across the middle and play Gareth Barry tucked in on the left, which would allow Joe Cole to support Crouch up front."

Francis argues: "We've got some very good midfielders so let's pack that area and let Gareth Barry give Lampard and Gerrard licence to do what they do best - support the front players."

The graphic below, which has England attacking from top to bottom and has the two halves combined into one map, shows the trio's "action areas" against Estonia.

It reveals that Barry's more defensive-minded game allowed Gerrard to do most of his work in the attacking zone - while Lampard covered over 3km from box to box after coming on as substitute for the last 20 minutes.

Gerrard, Barry and Lampard's heat-map against Estonia
Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard's heat-map against Estonia last month shows a clear difference in their 'action zones'

This would apparently lend weight to the argument that Gerrard's more natural game thrives alongside a midfield "pivot" in the form of Barry - while Lampard is happier roaming.

As for Lawrenson, the BBC Sport pundit simply explains: "He has to go 4-5-1 for me because, simply, who else can he play? You can't necessarily rely on Jermain Defoe or Darren Bent up front alongside Crouch, so why take the risk?"

However, Lineker and Mabbutt support the opinion that says a 4-5-1 formation could leave Crouch too isolated against an otherwise vulnerable Croatian defence.

"I feel we need a threat in behind the Croatian defence," says Lineker. "If we just have Crouch then Croatia will defend really high up the pitch and try to make life very frustrating for England.

"I'd like to see Defoe play to give us that threat in behind, which would make Croatia think twice about defending with a high line and put them on the back foot."

Mabbutt agrees, adding: "Crouch will cause problems for any defence and you need someone sniffing around for knockdowns and preying on the problems he causes. You have to have a player who can go beyond the defence alongside him."

And Beckham?

"He showed a few signs of rustiness against Austria, but his set-pieces are what makes him key," said Taylor.

Mabbutt adds: "Beckham is the talisman of the team, still. He's pulled us through on a number of occasions and who would bet against him producing another 'Roy of the Rovers' moment this time?"


Croatia, who - lest we forget - beat England 2-0 at home just over a year ago, may top the group, but McClaren's men will start the match as big favourites.

Not only is the match back at their spiritual home of Wembley, but Croatia's 2-0 defeat away to Macedonia hinted at a side already casting one eye to the finals next summer.

Slaven Bilic
Slaven Bilic's Croatia side will hope to make their mark at Wembley

"If Croatia can lose focus and discipline as easily as they did on Saturday, it's quite amazing really," says Mabbutt. "It shows there are cracks in the Croatian side and England have to go out and expose them."

However, Taylor and Wenger are quick to warn against complacency.

"Croatia have qualified, yes, but they may say we can do what we want, we can go at England and look for a win," admits Taylor. "If they do that then we will have a very good but a very tense game."

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger, who coaches Croatia striker Eduardo da Silva at Arsenal, warns: "You always have to go into a game of significance thinking the opponent will be at his best. Any other speculations weaken your motivation and determination and put you in danger.

"Croatia may have just lost but they are under no pressure and Wembley has a special aura. No-one wants to miss that kind of opportunity, so I think it is a very dangerous game for England."


Four days ago, the footballing obituaries had been written, the summer jaunts to Austria and Switzerland cancelled and McClaren's P45 was all but in the post.

Now, Sven-Goran Eriksson's successor has the opportunity to set the record straight and silence the doubters who said he was the wrong man for the job.

"Simply put, from day one McClaren asked to be judged over the whole campaign," says Taylor. "Not one game, not five games and not 11 games.

"Therefore, if England seal qualification against Croatia on Wednesday - as I expect them to - McClaren's time in charge has to be considered a success. End of story."

McClaren and England - it's over to you.

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