Beckham back in saddle for England?

Nearly a year after being dropped from the national team, David Beckham looks set to return to the England squad as coach Steve McClaren scrambles to boost his side’s chances of qualifying for the 2008 European Championship.

Beckham could be named on Saturday in McClaren’s squad to play Brazil in a friendly at Wembley next Friday, and a Euro qualifier in Estonia five days later.

Beckham (32) has not played for England since the team lost to Portugal in a penalty shoot-out in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Germany on July 1 last year. He tearfully stepped down as England captain the day after the defeat.

”There has been a lot of speculation about him, but everyone will find out on Saturday morning if he’s in the squad — you can all look forward to that,” McClaren said. ”I go around, keep my eye on everybody and David’s form has been monitored. The door has never been closed.”

British newspapers speculated that McClaren was only giving Beckham one last opportunity to play for England again — and at the new Wembley Stadium — before he moves to the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer in August.

McClaren took over as England coach in August and, breaking with the policy of former coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, made a point of dropping Beckham.

But the midfielder has played well recently for Real Madrid, who are challenging for the Spanish league title. Beckham had been frozen out of the Madrid team earlier in the season by coach Fabio Capello, who was angry at the way he handled the announcement of his imminent move to the United States.

Capello later relented but Beckham was then sidelined for six weeks with a knee injury. He has played in three of Madrid’s past four games, setting up goals in two of those — and Capello has backed Beckham for an England recall.

”David won’t know until tomorrow, but he hasn’t felt better in the last two years,” Capello told the Real Madrid website on Friday. ”I wouldn’t understand why a player of his magnitude wouldn’t be called by his national team.”

Even though England have won four of their nine games since Beckham was dropped — three of those in Euro 2008 qualifying — fans have been unhappy with the team’s lacklustre play.

Much of the criticism stemmed from England’s 3-0 win over Andorra and 0-0 draw with Israel in Euro 2008 qualifying in March. During both games, fans chanted for Beckham’s return. An angry McClaren walked out of a post-match news conference after the Andorra match.

England are fourth in Group E with 11 points from six games. Croatia lead with 13 points from five games, followed by Israel with 11 from six and Russia with 11 from five. Only the top two teams advance to the 2008 tournament in Austria and Switzerland.

Estonia have not won in five qualifiers and have conceded 10 goals.

Also expected to make an England return is Michael Owen. The 27-year-old Newcastle striker was picked for an official England ”B” match against Albania on Friday, his first appearance in an England shirt since he hurt his right knee in last year’s World Cup. If Owen completes the game unscathed, he’ll also likely be named by McClaren to the England squad.

”It is terrific to have Michael back in the England squad and we have missed him for the past year,” McClaren said. ”Many times he has been our saviour over the years and we have missed that.”

With Wayne Rooney suspended for the Estonia game, Owen’s presence would be welcome.

”We need experience in Estonia,” McClaren said. ”Playing in the Champions League and cup finals is one thing, but England is a huge step up.” — Sapa-AP

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