LONDON — When England announced that a Preston North End player had been called up for the squad to play Israel in Saturday’s Euro 2008 qualifying tie it was further proof that the current batch of players available to the national team is hardly vintage.

Christopher Davies

No disrespect to David Nugent, a striker who is having a fine season for Preston, but he would be the first outfield player from the Championship to represent England this century if he sees any action in Tel Aviv. This is a game England must win to keep realistic hopes of qualification alive and not a match for a Championship international rookie.

A home draw with Macedonia in October followed by defeat in Croatia has seen England slump to third place in Group E and another setback in Israel would leave major question marks over the team’s ability to reach next summer’s finals in Austria and Switzerland. A draw would not be fatal but it would leave Steve McClaren’s men needing to win their remaining matches, including home and away ties against Russia, to be sure of qualification.

The Israelis are no mugs, especially at home where they have lost only one competitive game in seven years, a statistic that highlights the difficulty of an away win by England. Individually, the English have better players but McClaren has shown little sign of being able to make the individuals play as a cohesive, effective unit.

Their first-choice right back, Gary Neville, is injured. The senior left-backs Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge are suspended and injured, respectively. McClaren has yet to find a suitable partner for Wayne Rooney in attack since the injury to Michael Owen last summer, while the ongoing problem of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard failing to produce their club form for England in midfield persists.

The good news is that Bayern Munich central midfielder Owen Hargreaves has recovered from his broken leg. Hargreaves was an ever-present during McClaren’s three-match 100 percent start to his reign after Germany 2006 but has been an absentee since, as England went four games without a win.

Before the World Cup, the 26-year-old was derided but Hargreaves was one of the few players to return from Germany with his reputation enhanced to the extent that his selection forces Gerrard onto the right of midfield.

“Obviously we are not in the position we expected to be but we’ve got eight games left and we are not thinking about not qualifying,” said Hargreaves who has made no secret of his desire to join Manchester United.

“Nobody has ever qualified for a tournament in March and nobody has been knocked out of one either. There is a lot of football left to play and this is just a stepping stone leading to the European Championship.”

While Hargreaves is a certainty to be England’s midfield enforcer, McClaren has several selection problems he knows he must get right. Knives are being sharpened less that a year after Sven-Goran Eriksson assumed control.

Neville’s deputy at right back, Micah Richards of Manchester City, will miss out because of injury and McClaren took the precaution of drafting in Charlton’s Luke Young.

The England head coach must now decide whether to amend his original idea of fielding Jamie Carragher at left back and switching the in-form Liverpool defender to the other flank. That would open up a starting spot for Gareth Barry (Aston Villa) or Phil Neville (Everton), who may profit by playing on the right if Carragher remains on the left. Barry lacks the pace for football at the highest level while Neville comes into the “reliable” category and no more.

If he plays, Neville will take the joint-total number of caps he shares with his brother Gary to 141 — equaling the record of number of caps won by a pair of brothers set by Bobby and Jack Charlton in 1970.

With Gerrard on the right of midfield, Hargreaves the shield in front of the back-four and Lampard providing an attacking thrust from deep McClaren seems set to choose Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon on the left for his first start.

Lennon, 19, has the speed to hurt any defense and Israel will attempt to cut out the supply to the winger who at his best is almost unstoppable but in other games borders on anonymous.

Up front Everton’s Andrew Johnson seems the likely partner for Wayne Rooney. The suspicion is that “AJ” is not truly international class, but such is the dearth of strikers there is no viable alternative. Of the leading 12 strikers in the Premiership Rooney and Johnson are the only English players.

The popularity of the Premiership in Israel means that the game has been sold out for weeks and coach Dror Kashtan said his players would have to be “at their best” to get the victory which would keep them in the chase for a qualification spot.

“England are England,” said Kashtan. “They are perhaps the most physical team in world soccer . . . Every [Israel] player will have to give at least 150 percent, or perhaps even more if we are to put up a fight.”

THE BEST player in the world at the moment is probably Cristiano Ronaldo. The Manchester United winger is odds-on favorite to be named the Footballer of the Year and watching him play this season has become a privilege.

English football is lucky to have such a precocious talent. We should make the most of the Portuguese international while he plays in the Premiership because Ronaldo has the ability to make you shake your head in amazement as he runs past defenders.

He has cut out the showboating and excessive stepovers and Ronaldo is now a team player of genuine class. If there has been a darker side to Ronaldo (and he is far from alone in this respect) it is that he goes down a little too easily.

When English players do this there is far less fuss but now, whenever Ronaldo hits the deck and wins a penalty, the immediate reaction from the usually losing opposing manager is to accuse the United player of cheating.

Middlesbrough’s Jonathan Woodgate tackled Ronaldo last Monday in the penalty area and the Portuguese scored the winning goal from the resulting spot-kick. It was a clear penalty but ‘Boro manager Gareth Southgate said: “He’s a fantastic player,” before adding: “He’s very good at what he does . . . “

The implication was obvious, even if Southgate stopped short of repeating his accusation from last December after a league game at the Riverside: “Ronaldo has a history of it . . . the lad has gone down once again,” he said then.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is understandably fed up with the predictable and unfounded continuing criticism of Ronaldo. “I don’t know what they’re going on about, Jesus God,” said Ferguson. “If it had been any other player . . .

“It’s because it’s Ronaldo. There’s been a stigma attached to the boy, which is not deserved. He’s a fantastic player, a phenomenal player.”

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