England's Euro 2008 hopes - and possibly Steve McClaren's job - rest in the hands of Israel after Russia completed an astonishing comeback win at the Luzhniki Stadium tonight.
The artificial pitch proved anything but fantastic for McClaren and his men,
who saw their five-match winning streak in qualifying Group E ended by two goals
in four minutes from substitute Roman Pavluchenko.
While Russia coach Guus Hiddink celebrated a famous triumph against the man
who got the job the Dutchman was considered for, McClaren was left to reflect on
how fickle fate can be.
Victory would have seen England qualify, and they had high hopes after Wayne
Rooney opened the scoring, but the scenario changed in the second half.
Russia are now only two points behind England with a game in hand. Croatia are
already virtually through so if Russia can win in Israel next month, with only
part-time Andorra to play in their final match, it is they who are likely to go
on to the finals in Austria and Switzerland.
As expected, there was no John Terry or Frank Lampard in an England side
showing only one change from the team that defeated Estonia at Wembley on
In handing Joleon Lescott his second cap - and his first start - McClaren
placed a huge amount of trust in the Everton man - and his manager David Moyes,
who has championed the former Wolves defender's claims as a left-back.
The atmosphere at kick-off was intense. Ninety minutes at the Blessed Thomas
Holford Catholic School in Altrincham on Monday lunchtime might have given
England a taste of the 'Field Turf' on which the game was played but it is a
fair bet they were not faced with a giant bear superimposed onto a massive
Russian flag which stretched across the entire length of the stand opposite the
dug-outs as the national anthems rang out.
England had some nervy moments early on with Lescott and Micah Richards -
playing the biggest match of their careers so far - struggling as the hosts
launched an initial onslaught.
Yury Zhrikov and Alexander Kerzhakov were particularly impressive but the
opportunities that fell Russia's way were half-chances at best.
Paul Robinson did produce one good save to deny Konstatin Zurianov but other
than that Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Gareth Barry, operating in a deeper
midfield role, stood firm.
All that effort, industry and doggedness received its reward in the most
thrilling manner imaginable seconds before the half-hour mark.
England were growing in confidence and Richards, who by now was starting to
get into the contest, launched a long ball deep into Russian territory.
On the face of it, Michael Owen is hardly the man you would be wanting to jump
But, not only did the Newcastle man leap, but he knocked it on to Rooney, who
took one soft touch on his chest before launching a missile of such venom from
the end of his right boot that keeper Vladimir Gabulov barely had a chance to
move before it bulged the net underneath his crossbar.
There may have been a suspicion of offside about the goal but no-one of an
English persuasion was too bothered as they marvelled at the ultimate route-one
move in which the ball never touched the controversial pitch once Richards began
After waiting three years for a competitive goal, Rooney had two in a week and
looked like becoming the hero McClaren had called for yesterday.
Instead, the Manchester United man turned villain after the break.
Campbell had produced a mighty performance to quell repeated Russian raids on
the visitors' goal when Rooney was caught napping as Zurianov burst into the
Spanish referee Luis Medina Cantalejo spotted Rooney's tug on the Russian's
shirt and pointed to the spot.
Substitute Pavluchenko dispatched the penalty with a degree of confidence
which belied the pressure he must have been under.
The goal reawakened Russian passions and four minutes later they had even more
to celebrate as Pavluchenko fired in from close range after Robinson could only
parry Alexei Berezutsky's shot into his path.
Given the astonishing turnaround, how England had cause to rue Steven
Gerrard's glaring miss immediately after the break when he was left completely
free at the far post as Barry delivered the perfect free-kick.
Had the Liverpool man realised the time available to him he would surely have
taken a touch. Instead, he attempted a side-footed shot first time and fired
Gerrard's error was ultimately to prove extremely costly and it could even
have been worse for England as Richards almost turned the ball into his own
The visitors had one chance at redemption but for the first time all night
Campbell erred, nodding Barry's ball over.