Croatia unafraid of England except for boot of Beckham
As Steve McClaren prepares to announce his line-up to face Croatia to his players today, the England manager has been warned by tomorrow's opposition that his side risk becoming a one-trick team. Slaven Bilic's chief scout said that England's only real threat comes from David Beckham's crossing ability – and the veteran midfielder is not yet a definite starter in the team.
The verdict from Croatia's chief scout, Goran Vucevic, was that if his side can stop Beckham tomorrow night than they can cut off the one reliable supply line to striker Peter Crouch, McClaren's last fit proven international goalscorer. "I watched England in Vienna and they didn't show much development from when we beat them in Zagreb [in October last year]," Vucevic said. "The one thing we must do is stop Beckham. He can put the ball on Crouch's eyebrows and that can be dangerous."
Bilic himself added that he believed England would play "4-1-4-1" with Crouch as a lone striker, although the players have not yet worked on the all-important team formation in their closed training sessions. McClaren said on Sunday that the team to face Croatia was already settled in his own mind, but he will leave it until today before he tells the players what he wants from them. And there are many who will wake this morning uncertain of whether they will be playing.
Paul Robinson is top of the list of those established England players unsure about their places for tomorrow's game. The Tottenham goalkeeper is the most vulnerable of the senior players after Scott Carson made his debut on Friday against Austria. Beckham should start in McClaren's midfield, but there is also doubt over whether there will be a place for Gareth Barry and Owen Hargreaves in a 4-5-1 formation. Impressive in training yesterday, Jermain Defoe cannot be discounted either should McClaren stay with 4-4-2.
There are more immediate problems for Bilic too. He could be without his best striker Mladen Petric, the Borussia Dortmund player, who did not train yesterday and is believed to have an illness that makes him a serious doubt. In his place, Bilic would probably call upon Ivica Olic of Hamburg to play alongside Arsenal's Eduardo. Nevertheless, the bravado of the Croatia coach will not go unnoticed by McClaren and yesterday Bilic assured Russia that Croatia would do everything to win.
"Hiddink is one of the great coaches, and I have seen what he has been saying, but we play for ourselves, not for Russia," Bilic said. "We want a quality result and I expect a great spectacle. We know England very well. This is Wembley, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Pele once said his biggest regret was not playing at Wembley – well, we will get that chance."
Top of Group E, Bilic's side only need a point to be sure of winning the group, as England do to clinch qualification regardless of the three points that Russia are virtually assured of away to Andorra. Bilic said: "I'm sure England will try to push forward, but they will do it cautiously. The players that played in Vienna are the ones who will play against Croatia [apart from Michael Owen]. I have heard that John Terry and Ashley Cole are willing to play, but they would be the only changes.
"I think a point at Wembley is a good result. But no one can adjust themselves to play for a single point. So if we manage to get a draw we would be happy. But if that happens, I guarantee everything will be clean."
Terry trained with Chelsea yesterday and is still only an outside bet to be included in McClaren's plans for tomorrow's game – he would have to train today with the England squad in order for that to be possible. With Rio Ferdinand suspended, McClaren should have the easiest of his selection decisions to make in defence where the back four who played against Austria – Micah Richards, Sol Campbell, Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge – look an obvious option.
Joe Cole could yet find himself out of the side if McClaren wants to find room for Hargreaves and Barry in a five-man midfield. The Chelsea midfielder said yesterday England would have to try to beat Croatia. "Whether we play 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-5-1, it'll be to go out with good intentions to win this game," he said. "It's a dangerous, dangerous game because Croatia have got nothing to play for. Their players are very good technically and will want to come and express themselves at Wembley. So we've got the game of our lives here, so we do have to play well.
"We have to concentrate on ourselves. We have to play well on Wednesday night and win the game. This isn't a game where we can go in and think we can sneak it and not play well. Each and every one of us has to be seven or eight out of 10 at least and really perform."
Cole had promised his Chelsea team-mate Tal Ben Haim that he would treat him to a holiday if the Israeli international was able to deliver a result against Russia on Saturday night. As he obliged – and was the man of the match on the night into the bargain – Cole said that he would be true to his word. "I've got him a few brochures for Clacton-on-Sea, he'll have a great time," he said. "Seriously, I'm a man of my word. It started off as a joke, and he'll probably say I don't have to do that, but I'll send him and his wife somewhere nice. I'm sure we can cut a few corners."