Fri, Nov 16, 2007 - Page 22 News List

England team to face Austria, but English eyes are on Tel Aviv

AFP , VIENNA

The ''Geome'' multimedia spaceball, a virtual soccer arena, shows projections during a test run next to the Burgtheater building in Vienna on Wednesday. The animated ball-shaped screen will be used for a multimedia show between today and Tuesday in connection with the Austria v England soccer match.

PHOTO: EPA

It was supposed to be a reconnaissance mission to one of the joint hosts of Euro 2008.

Instead, the match England will play against Austria in Vienna this evening could come to be regarded as the mother of all meaningless friendlies.

No matter how sharply they perform in the Austrian capital, Steve McClaren's men know that 24 hours later they could be facing up to the fact that they will not be returning to either Austria or Switzerland next summer.

If Russia beat Israel in Tel Aviv tomorrow and Croatia secure a point in Macedonia, a generation of England stars once regarded as potential world-beaters will be looking forward to an unwanted summer of leisure while the rest of Europe's top players take in the Alpine air.

"To be sitting at home watching that tournament would be a nightmare," said Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool midfielder who will stand in as captain tonight in the absence of the injured John Terry. "From an international point of view it would be the biggest disappointment of my career."

Given that Israel have little to play for, the odds must be on Russia getting the win that would leave them needing only to beat minnows Andorra in their final group game to clinch one of the top two spots in Group E.

Provided Macedonia do not pull off a shock win against Croatia in Skopje, that would mean England will have to turn up at Wembley for a match against the Croats which will give disgruntled supporters the perfect opportunity to vent their anger at their under-performing heroes.

Despite the frustrating circumstances, Gerrard is happy to be involved in tonight's fixture.

"I think it will help," he said. "It helps to take the focus off the Israel and Russia game and also Croatia. It's a chance to play another international game and get a win and breed some confidence. I could be sitting here on Monday a couple of days away from one of the biggest internationals ever so we need some kind of preparation."

Michael Owen, who is expected to be paired with Peter Crouch in attack in the absence of the injured Wayne Rooney, echoed Gerrard's comments, while admitting that thoughts of just how unpleasant Wednesday's match against Croatia could be had entered his head.

"It could be a tough night for a number of reasons," he said. "You don't want to go out at Wembley with nothing but pride to play for. There is no hiding the fact we should be qualifying out of this group but it is easy to think `What if?' We are talking about hypotheticals. There is a lot of uncertainty around at the moment but we have to stay positive."

"If someone did us a favour on Saturday and we weren't in the right frame of mind to take advantage on Wednesday, it would be criminal," he said.

McClaren, who is widely expected to be dismissed if England's failure is confirmed, is expected to take a look at Scott Carson in goal, although Paul Robinson will return if there is anything to play for in the match against Croatia.

With John Terry injured and Rio Ferdinand suspended for the Croatia game, England will also have an unfamiliar look in defense with Sol Campbell and Joleon Lescott expected to occupy the central berths and Wayne Bridge at left-back.

McClaren's pre-emptive campaign to save his job has been bolstered by support from some of his leading players in recent days.

A convincing win over Austria would certainly not harm his cause but the reality is that events in Vienna will have little bearing on the looming decision about his future.

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