I’m not a God-fearing man, but this weekend we have at least seen confirmation of the existence of Lucifer, because the only way that the events that unfolded in Tel Aviv last night could have come about in the way that they did must have been as the result of a very late pact between Steve McClaren and the devil. With the scores tied at 1-1 and time running out, Russia hit the post with a shot that could have knocked them out of the European Championships. Within a matter of seconds, the ball was at the other end of the pitch, and Omer Golan scored a critical goal. Had the score ended 1-1, England would have needed to beat Croatia at Wembley on Wednesday night. As it is, a draw will be enough, and Croatia warmed up for the match by losing in Macedonia. If (or when) England get knocked out on penalties in the quarter-finals next summer, I don’t want to hear any sobbing over how unlucky they’ve been. They used up all their luck for the next twenty years last night.
So, a place in the finals is there for the taking, however little England deserve it. The good thing about this is that everything is much more of a black and white issue. England are plenty capable of losing to Croatia on Wednesday night, and Steve McClaren has now used up the eighth of his nine lives. Theoretically, had Russia qualified last night or got the draw that would have made their qualification more likely than not, the feeble excuses that follow England around might have continued. Oh, it was Paul Robinson’s fault for kicking thin air in Zagreb a year ago. Oh, it was that plastic pitch in Moscow last month. There is still a chance that one or two of these will be wheeled out ahead of Wednesday (Michael Owen’s injury ensures that, if England do find themselves having to score on Wednesday night, it will most likely be a midfielder that has to do it), but we should ignore them. If England don’t get a draw on Wednesday night, McClaren’s position becomes untenable – it’s as simple as that. The Guardian has mischievously (if truthfully) suggested that he should go even if they qualify on Wednesday night, but we know that he won’t, and the furious papering over the cracks in the England set-up will continue.
Scotland supporters, wake up in a puddle of tears this morning, could at least console themselves with the knowledge that, should there be a God, they’ll have a chance of eternity in the kingdom of heaven, because there were no Faustian pacts on display at Hampden Park last night, where Scotland were eliminated after losing 2-1 at home to Italy. Alex McLeish’s complaints about the winning goal were somewhat disingenuous. The decision was a fifty-fifty one, and he chose to overlook the perfectly onside goal that would have made the score 2-0 to Italy with twenty minutes played and killed the match stone dead. In truth, the killer result for Scotland came in Tblisi last month, when they lost to Georgia. It was theirs to lose after they won in Paris in September and topped the group, and they somehow managed it and, while the pundits picking over the carcass of it are right to say that there are many positives to take from their campaign (not least of which is the fact that they will be second seeds in the next World Cup qualifiers), it has to be said that although they were over-achieving in being in with a shout going into their final match, they still, well, choked.
If England don’t deserve to qualify but might and Scotland deserved to but didn’t, then one man stands head and shoulders above everyone else in the tournament in deserving a place in next year’s finals – David Healy, whose exceptional record of thirteen goals has seen him overhaul Davor Suker as the European Championships’ most prolific ever goalscorer in qualifying. It seemed likely that rain would cause the cancellation of Northern Ireland’s match against Denmark last night, but it went ahead at a sodden Windsor Park. There’s always something retro about Windsor Park – I noted that one of the stands there is still clad in corrugated iron (a substance that used to be ubiquitous at football grounds but is now much rarer to see), and the commentary appeared to be coming from something approaching a public bar, with the BBC’s Jackie Fullerton being almost drowned out by the screaming of a man presumably sitting behind him both times Northern Ireland scored. They’ve still got a massive job to do, though, and no amount of discussing how they did it at the 1982 World Cup will make beating Spain away from home any easier. Even if they do manage it, a point will still be enough for Sweden against Latvia.
Finally, a day after Little Dotmund made a reference on here to the Magical Magyars of the 1950s, it is sobering to reflect upon just how far the stock of Hungarian football has fallen since then. They lost 3-0 in Moldova last night and now sit one place off the bottom of their group, with only Malta beneath them. Ferenc Puskas must be spinning in his grave. I wouldn’t bet against England following a very similar trajectory over the next five decades or so.