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The end is near


To qualify for the European Championships, England needs to beat group leader Croatia next month and hope that Russia fails to register wins against Israel (a team that has nothing to play for) and Andorra (a country with a population of 72,000). This is a sequence of events less likely than Britney Spears having a family Christmas this year.

So what went wrong? Why is the national team of a country with the world's No. 1 club competition struggling for qualification? Pipe-smoking Team Limey donned its deer stalkers in search of an explanation, and the more we looked, the deeper-set the problems appeared.

Let's look at the game. England was arguably unlucky. Steven Gerrard missed an easy goal and Russia scored from an unjust penalty. The pitch in Moscow was turf, giving the game the air of a five-a-side pickup between the lads. The ball bounced high and players often needed an extra touch to control the ball. The play simply didn't flow.

Furthermore, after letting England train on a dry pitch, the Russians -- further escalating the continuing diplomatic crisis between our countries -- cheekily added tons of water onto the pitch shortly before the game to give the field a wholly different completion to what the players had trained on.

Despite that, one would still have expected England to win given the players at its disposal. But Wayne Rooney failed to get into the game (despite his awesome volley goal) and Michael Owen is still clearly not fully fit. Gerrard, playing through injury, has yet to show any real form this season; Joe Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips were anonymous on the wings, while Sol Campbell looked so concerned about not getting berated for making a mistake that he contributed little.

And we wish Paul Robinson had taken a leaf from Campbell's book. The Spurs stopper was once again error-prone, this time spilling the ball into Roman Pavluchenko's path for Russia's winner. How England missed John Terry, the brave backbone of the defense. Instead it had Rio Ferdinand lolloping lethargically.

And why on earth was Everton center back Jolean Lescott played at left back over experienced England left back Phil Neville? Russia saw the tactical error and piled down that wing like there was free vodka at the end.

But mine a little deeper, and you'll discover that the plot to this story was written in October 2006 when England drew 0-0 at home to Macedonia a few days before losing 2-0 in Croatia. And did the rot set in before that with the appointment of Steve McClaren, following the all-too-public and embarrassing failure to acquire the services of Luiz Felipe Scolari as England manager?

McClaren's previous career highlights were a Carling Cup win with Middlesbrough, mid-table mediocrity in the English Premier League and a 5-0 mauling in the UEFA Cup final at the hands of Sevilla. His appointment was seemingly based on him ingratiating himself to the Football Association establishment during his time as former manager Sven Göran-Eriksson's right-hand man, and jingoistic calls for a home-grown manager from the very same tabloid newspapers that now call for his head.

For McClaren, the end is near -- he has reached the final curtain. Bookmakers give England a 35 percent chance of qualifying; if it doesn't, his demise is certain. And yet, does this sorry tale extend further back? Top-rated coach Eriksson was unlucky to see his England side lose on penalties in the quarterfinals of both the European Championships and the World Cup, but overall, while results were decent, the England team rarely played to its full potential under his stewardship.

Previous England managers have been chastised, but the reality is that a major international tournament not featuring England is a rarity. The last time the Three Lions failed to qualify for a major tournament was 13 years ago, when a second-rate England team under Graham "Turnip Head" Taylor failed to qualify for USA '94. The last time England failed to get into the European Championships was 23 years ago. If, as looks likely, it fails to qualify for Euro '08, McClaren has to go.

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But are our expectations too high? England last reached a major semifinal in '96, has never won the European Championships and hasn't won the World Cup since 1966. Do these expectations cause undue and detrimental pressure for the players? And to what extent does the tabloid media circus amplify the problem?

Does England have too small a pool of top-class domestic players to choose from due to the increasing numbers of foreign imports in the EPL? Who knows? If you do, drop us a line.

If McClaren gets bored during unemployment, he can vacation with Sammy Lee. After one win in nine games, "Big" Sam Allardyce's replacement at Bolton Wanderers, "Little" Sam found himself with a disillusioned squad and a ticket down the managerial gangplank by Bolton chairman Phil Gartside.

Lee managed to escape just in time to miss this weekend's inevitable horror show at the Emirates, as Arsenal -- 10 wins in the last 10 games -- takes on his former club.

One man who -- despite being dropped for poor form and who seems to have overlooked the fact that boss Arsène Wenger has lost all confidence in him -- is expecting to play in the game at the Emirates is Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann: "Arsène Wenger has not told me anything, but I am here now and I expect him to play me," said the perhaps too optimistic German netminder.

Another manager close to joining Lee and McClaren in Team Limey's Club Med for ex-managers is Birmingham City's Steve Bruce, who is on the verge of receiving a rather unsavory Chinese take out. "The Elephant Man" is on shaky ground. Birmingham's prospective new owner, Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung, refused to approve the new contract offered to him.

Bruce's passage to the Victorian circus could be quicker than expected as his Birmingham side faces third-place Manchester City at Eastlands on Saturday. Team Limey expects Brazilian midfield maestro Elano to add to his tally of goal-of-the-season contenders.

But this weekend's standout game is the Liverpool derby between Everton and Liverpool. Liverpool goes into the match on a poor run of form by their standards. Its 2-2 draw at home against Spurs in its last EPL match was only achieved thanks to a howler from England keeper Robinson. Steve McClaren, were you watching?

Last time around, we asked whether any team could break the iron grip the Big Four have over Champions League qualification. The general consensus was, not surprisingly, a resounding no -- although most agreed that, given Liverpool's stuttering start and the circus-like goings on at Chelsea, the grip is loosening.

George from Philadelphia and Simon from Michigan both agree that the team from the blue half of Manchester is the only one looking likely to have some kind of chance this season. Don from Florida thinks that if Spurs hadn't dug themselves such a hole, they could've given Chelsea and Liverpool a run for fourth place.

This week, we want your views on England's plight. Are expectations of the national team too high? What can we do to get us out of the position we're in? Send them through as always to