(photo credit: AP)
England soccer players kicked balls across the Wembley turf Wednesday for the first time in more than six years.
With the newly built stadium finally open, coach Steve McClaren held a training session at the new venue before the squad flies to Tel Aviv for Saturday's Euro 2008 qualifying match.
With his job on the line after a run of poor performances, McClaren needed something special to motivate his players and get them back on track for the European championship.
Wednesday's outing at the new 800-million ($1.54 billion), 90,000-capacity Wembley might be just what they needed.
The famous Wembley Twin Towers are now gone. The new eye-catching feature is a giant, tilting arch which is 133 meters high at the center and stretches over the length of the stadium. The stadium has a partially retractable roof which can be closed in extremes of bad weather.
For Gareth Barry and Kieron Dyer, the day brought back memories of the national team's last game at the famous old stadium, which was knocked down in 2001. They were in the lineup that lost 1-0 at home to Germany in a World Cup qualifying game October 7, 2000, a defeat that prompted coach Kevin Keegan to quit.
For younger stars such as Wayne Rooney, it was their first Wembley experience.
Owen Hargreaves, who plays in Germany for Bayern Munich, also had his first experience of the Wembley venue and playing surface.
The first 15 minutes of training was open to the media. The remainder of the session was carried out in private after the reporters, photographers and TV crews were asked to leave.
Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard made it to Wembley after receiving an award from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Gerrard, who led Liverpool to its fifth Champions League triumph in 2005, received the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to soccer.
England lost 2-0 at Croatia after a tame 0-0 draw at home to Macedonia last October to slip to third in the Group E standings. McClaren's team is three points behind leader Croatia, one behind Russia and level with Israel and Macedonia. Only two teams qualify from each group.
After the game in Tel Aviv, England travels to Barcelona to face Andorra on Wednesday.
"We've got a good squad and I think we need to start doing the talking on the field," McClaren said during the buildup to Wednesday's practice session. "That means displacing Croatia and Russia from the summit of Group E in order to reach the 2008 finals.
"There is ability, potential in that side to be better than we are at the moment and we know that and we've got to go out and prove it."
England's midfield is boosted by Hargreaves's return from a broken leg. Although he was named to the squad for last month's 1-0 loss at Spain at Old Trafford, he didn't play.
"I think I've shown what I can bring to a team," said Hargreaves, who was one of the few impressive England performers at last year's World Cup. "Hopefully I can bring some energy into the midfield, give the back four some support, keep a clean sheet and, obviously with the players we have going forward, get them the ball positions where they can create chances and hopefully score some goals."
Hargreaves is expected to play alongside Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Aaron Lennon in midfield.
McClaren is likely to field Rooney and either Everton's Andy Johnson or Tottenham's Jermain Defoe in attack.
The England coach has had to make changes in defense, however. With fullbacks Gary Neville and Wayne Bridge ruled out through injury, Micah Richards doubtful and Ashley Cole suspended for the game in Israel, McClaren has called up Aston Villa's Barry and Charlton's Luke Young.