It was all but conceded that England wouldn't be going -- one report calculated the cost to the FA of not making the Euro '08 finals at tens of millions of dollars -- but it was based on the assumption Russia would beat Israel in Tel Aviv.
A mistaken assumption, indeed.
Israel's 2-1 win over Russia on Saturday means that English fans can breathe a little easier. England will qualify if it beats or ties Croatia on Wednesday at Wembley. The Israel-Russia result also meant that Croatia, a 2-0 loser at Macedonia, had qualified for Euro '08 and no longer has an interest in the result of its match at Wembley.
For weeks, there had been speculation about the future of Steve McClaren -- future Galaxy coach? -- but his stint as England coach was likely extended because of the outcome in Ramat Gan Stadium.
"I'd like to pay tribute to Israel for the professional way they went about their job," said McClaren. "They showed what a proud nation they are and deserve a lot of praise for their efforts. I've said several times over the past few weeks that the campaign was never over until it was over and that I always believed it would come down to the Croatia match -- thankfully, it has."
For McClaren and his England players, watching the Israel-Russia game was a little like reliving the Russia-England game a month earlier. The Russians fell behind in the first half and looked to be in over their heads until they stormed back in the second half.
Elyaniv Barda gave Israel the lead in the 10th minute, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov equalized in the 61st, and Russia almost went ahead in the 89th when Dmitry Sychev's shot hit the far post. Seconds later, Omer Golan broke free at the other end and scored the winning goal for Israel.
The difference between an Israel win and a tie is that England only needs to tie Croatia to clinch second place, instead of needing to win at Wembley to finish second. England, which has a two-point lead over Russia, holds the advantage in the tiebreaker.
While much was made of England's 2-1 loss to Russia in Moscow, forgotten was its 3-0 win in September that is now the difference between the two teams.
Nov. 17 in Tel Aviv
Israel 2 Russia 1. Goals: Barda 10, Golan 90; Bilyaletdinov 60.
Israel -- Aouate, Shpungin, Keinan, Ben Haim, Ziv, Alberman, Cohen, Yitzhaki (Ben Shushan, 61), Buzaglo, (Ohayon, 63), Barda, Sahar (Golan, 69).
Russia -- Gabulov, Berezutsky (Pogrebnyak 69), Ignashevich, Berezutsky, Zhirkov, Anyukov, Zyrianov, Semshov (Torbinsky 30), Bilyaletdinov, Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko (Sychev, 53).
Referee: Stefano Farina (Italy).