Ashton loss adds to England concerns
© AFP

England coach Steve McClaren will have to plan without Dean Ashton as he prepares for crucial UEFA EURO 2008 qualifers against Estonia and Russia. Ashton suffered knee ligament damage during West Ham United's 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa on Saturday and Hammers boss Alan Curbishley admitted the striker is almost certain to miss the matches on 13 and 17 October.

McClaren's attacking options are dwindling. He could have done without seeing his back-up targetman injured as he is already without Wigan Athletic forward Emile Heskey, while Michael Owen may have to play even though he is far from fully fit after a groin operation.

It is terrible luck for Ashton who has yet to make his England debut after suffering a serious ankle injury while training with the national team in August 2006. "Dean has hurt his medial knee ligament," Curbishely said. "I would think he is very doubtful for England. He couldn't really run near the end so I imagine that is it for him.

"It's a big blow for England but it's also a big blow for us as we have injuries aplenty up front. It all depends how badly he has hurt his ligaments. We will have to wait and see but I would say things are looking a bit tight for the next two weeks.

"You feel sorry for the lad because he has had his fair share of bad luck and has worked ever so hard to get himself back fit and playing."

McClaren will send out a very different England team against Estonia from the one that beat Russia 3-0 in their last match. He is considering leaving out three of his first choice defence to avoid the risk of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole getting bookings that would rule them out of the crunch trip to Russia.

The trio are all one yellow card away from suspension and McClaren said: "It is a consideration. I have to ask myself do I want to risk losing someone. It means picking a team for Estonia is not an entirely straightforward issue, there are other factors involved as well.

"Clearly though, our priority is to win and avoid dropping points at home as we did against Macedonia. If we do that, what happens in Russia is irrelevant."

McClaren must also decide whether to bring back Frank Lampard at the expense of Gareth Barry. Lampard is fit after a thigh injury and McClaren admitted he had been disappointed to lose the Chelsea midfielder for the last two matches.

But Barry produced two excellent performances in those games and gelled well with Steven Gerrard. "Frank gives us another option because he is a midfield player who can score goals, which is something we have spoken about before," McClaren said.

"He was man of the match against Germany in August but no individual player has any right to be guaranteed a place in the England side. It is on performances and form. I will have no hesitation in picking players I think will win the game. Other players have to understand that."