Vienna stage for England’s last waltz

Vienna, November 15:

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 here on Friday 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 on Saturday and Croatia secure a point in Macedonia, England stars 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,” acknowledged Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool midfielder who will stand in as captain here 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, 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 Friday’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.”

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.

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 defence with Sol Campbell and Joleon Lescott expected to occupy the central berths and Wayne Bridge at left-back.

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