Having thus far bored their way through World Cup qualifying in achieving the minimum acceptable results, England is now faced with the task of having to finally produce two positive, quality performances if they are to avoid the unthinkable of missing out on the trip to Brazil next summer.
With just two matches remaining in their group, England’s only wins have come against venerable powerhouses of international football, Moldova and San Marino, Yes, 25 goals have been scored -- a total only currently beaten by Germany in Europe’s qualifiers -- but all but three of them were racked up against the two whipping boys. In four attempts, Roy Hodgson’s side has failed to beat any of the genuine competition in the group provided by Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland. That is almost certainly going to have to change in the coming week.
England leads their group by a solitary point from both Ukraine and Montenegro, with matches remaining at Wembley against the latter on Friday before the visit of Poland next Tuesday. Failure to get a victory against Montenegro would likely leave their chances of securing automatic passage to the World Cup out of their own hands heading into the final round of fixtures. It is far from the straight-forward task many observers may claim it should be against a country with a population of just over 600,000 people that has never qualified for a major tournament. Indeed, not only did England fail to beat Montenegro when they met in Podgorica earlier this year, but two draws were also recorded en route to Euro 2012.
There are two ways to look at England’s result in qualifying to date. The glass-half full viewpoint is that they have won the games they should have against Moldova and San Marino, while getting acceptable points away from home against the three other sides, all of which are of decent quality. The only disappointing result, therefore, being a draw at home to Ukraine. Win the next two games and it is a case of job well done.
Yet, from a less optimistic another perspective England have showed no real sign that they have what it takes to take the initiative and go out and beat a side of competitive quality, even on their own patch. They are a team very much in their coach’s image. Hodgson is first and foremost a pragmatist and has an inclination to think first about the strengths of the opposition rather than those of his own team. It is no surprise therefore that his best success has come with more moderate clubs, while, largely, when he has stepped up to coaching at the top level -- at Inter Milan and Liverpool -- he has struggled.
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Perhaps the biggest question is where England currently fits on that scale. Certainly they are no longer an elite team in international competition. Heading into Euro 2012, with little preparation time and a team rocked by the sudden departure of Fabio Capello, he was arguably the right man for the job. It wasn’t pretty by any means, but he got the team organized and they only exited on penalties in the quarterfinals to eventual finalists Italy.
His game plan has not really developed since then, however. Playing with two often ludicrously deep central midfielders and with the uninspiring Tom Cleverley playing in the creative midfield role for most of the qualifiers, England have remained a tough watch. (Hodgson’s insistence that performances have been good hasn’t helped his cause with the watching public or media.)
England’s collection of players is its least gifted since the last time they failed to reach the World Cup, 20 years ago. However, with a squad that largely spends its time playing in the top half of the Premier League, they have enough quality to be going into the next two games with a positive mindset to impose their game on their opponents.
While that philosophy may not come from Hodgson, it could well be brought about by the inclusion in the starting lineup of Jack Wilshere. The midfielder is one of the very few English players of his generation who is comfortable receiving the ball under pressure and crucially is also capable of breaking through the lines of the opposition.
He was not at his best in Ukraine last month and hasn’t enjoyed the best of form with Arsenal of late, but he showed signs late on against West Brom on Sunday that he could be rediscovering his form. A man for so long touted as the future of English football looks set to play a massive part in deciding whether that future includes a place in Brazil next year.
Prediction: England 2-1 Montenegro
Ashley Cole will miss the meeting with Montenegro after suffering a rib injury in Chelsea’s defeat of Norwich on Sunday. Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs has been called up as his replacement, but Leighton Baines is set to replace Cole in the starting lineup. The entire 23-man squad took part in training on Tuesday.
Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Fraser Forster (Celtic), John Ruddy (Norwich).
Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Phil Jones, Chris Smalling (both Manchester United), Kyle Walker (Tottenham).
Midfielders: Ross Barkley (Everton), Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley (both Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), James Milner (Manchester City), Andros Townsend (Tottenham), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal).
Forwards: Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Rickie Lambert (Southampton), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Daniel Welbeck (Manchester United).
Goalkeepers: Mladen Božović (Tom Tomsk), Vukašin Poleksić (Debrecen).
Defenders: Stefan Savić (Fiorentina), Savo Pavićević (Anorthosis), Marko Baša (Lille), Miodrag Džudović (Spartak Nalchik), Ivan Kecojević (Gaziantepspor), Marko Simić (Kaiserispor), Vladimir Volkov (Partizan), Milan Jovanović (Lokomotiv Sofija), Vladimir Božović (Mordovia Saransk).
Midfielders: Nikola Drinčić (No club), Elsad Zverotić (Fulham), Simon Vukčević (Vojvodina), Milos Krkotic (Dacia Chisinau), Mitar Novaković (Amkar Perm), Milorad Peković (Hansa Rostock).
Forwards: Stevan Jovetić (Manchester City), Mirko Vučinić (Juventus), Dejan Damjanović (FC Seoul), Fatos Bećiraj (Dinamo Zagreb), Filip Kasalica (Red Star Belgrade), Andrija Delibašić (No club).