TALLINN - Steve McClaren will struggle to keep David Beckham out of his England side after the former captain engineered a 3-0 win over Estonia and put them back in the race to qualify for Euro 2008.
England's David Beckham (L) celebrates with Frank Lampard (R) after Michael Owen's goal against Estonia during their Euro 2008 group E soccer match in Tallinn June 6, 2007. [Reuters]
Though they stay fourth in Group E, England were in real danger of being cast adrift after losing to Croatia and drawing 0-0 with Macedonia and Israel.
Beckham's competitive return on Wednesday, having been passed over since McClaren took charge following the 2006 World Cup, seemed to galvanise a side who could ill-afford any more slip-ups.
His pinpoint passes from the right flank set up second-half goals for strikers Peter Crouch and Michael Owen after Joe Cole had given England a 37th minute lead.
Equally telling was the fact that England players on the ball kept looking for Beckham with their passes, right from the start.
McClaren acknowledged Beckham's contribution and indicated the midfielder's exile might even have ended in March.
The 32-year-old midfielder was ruled out of a possible recall for the draw in Israel and a dour 3-0 win over Andorra, in which England were booed by their own fans, after damaging knee ligaments with Real Madrid.
Asked why Beckham had not been brought back sooner, McClaren curtly replied: "Funnily enough, he's been injured the last few months."
As for England's prospects, which were also buoyed by Beckham's goalmaking return in last week's 1-1 friendly draw with Brazil, McClaren said: "We've still got a lot to prove.
"We don't think 'that's it, we've turned a corner' because we haven't...but there was a great feeling among the players after the addition of Beckham."
England have 14 points from seven games, trailing Russia on 15, Israel on 17 after playing a game more, and leaders Croatia also on 17.
"It's in our control," McClaren said. "We've got four of the last five games at Wembley...and we've got to win our home games."
Owen's return to the scoresheet after long-term injury was another welcome sight for England, particularly as Crouch will miss their next qualifier against Israel in September.
However, Wayne Rooney will be back from suspension and will play if fit.
Though McClaren took over the job last August promising changes, his team is increasingly resembling that of his predecessor Sven-Goran Eriksson at their ill-fated World Cup.
Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are still working at their shared roles in central midfield, Owen is again trying to reach match fitness after a long injury layoff and Beckham is still behind a lot of their goals.
Since it took them to the World Cup quarter-finals in 2006, McClaren can only hope it is enough to get them to Austria and Switzerland in 2008.