Roy Hodgson believes the options at his disposal are as strong as they have been in some time as he looks to select an England team to get a vital win over Montenegro on Friday. Topping their group by just a single point from their opponents at Wembley as well as from Ukraine, anything less than a victory could well leave England’s fate out of their own hands heading into the final round of World Cup qualifying next Tuesday. A defeat may mean England staring at the unthinkable of not even being able to secure a playoff berth.
England’s preparations have been impacted by Tom Cleverley’s late withdrawal to join Ashley Cole on the sidelines. Yet, despite the likes of Theo Walcott and Glen Johnson already being ruled out, Hodgson is confident with the quality of the players available.
"This has probably been one of the hardest selection weeks, with so many senior players available who haven't always been available," he said. "Some of the younger players who we have brought in aren't just there to learn the ropes, either. They are making a serious knock on the door for a starting place.”
England have only beaten minnows San Marino and Moldova thus far in the group and now must take advantage of their two final home games and get victories against Montenegro and the Poland to secure top spot. However, Hodgson is eager for his players not to become anxious to push too hard for a win.
“We have 90 minutes to win the game and it's important that the tempo is high, we don't waste time, we want the ball back in play as quickly as possible so we can get as many attacks as we can,” he explained. "But on the other hand, we have to be aware that if we throw people forward without any thought of what is going on behind us, we can get punished. I don't need to ram that message how to the players as it's something they get in the Premier League every week."
While much attention has focused on the pressure England are under, it should not be forgotten what’s at stake for Montenegro. A country of just over 600,000 people, that has only been playing as an independent nation since 2007, finds itself within sight of a first ever appearance at the World Cup. They will have to get a result at Wembley, though, without Juventus forward Mirko Vucinic, Lille center-back Marko Basa and first-choice goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic.
D: Walker, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines
M: Gerrard, Wilshere
Milner, Rooney, Welbeck
D: Jovanovic, Dzudovic, Savic, Volkov
M: Zverotic, Krkotic, Drincic, Boskovic
F: Damjanovic, Jovetic
Prediction: England’s results, with the exception of a draw at home to Ukraine, have been perfectly acceptable so far. If England meet expectations with two home wins in the next few days then Hodgson will be entitled to reflect on an efficient qualifying campaign.
However, very few of the performances will be remembered fondly. Away in Montenegro, as in Poland, England took the lead but were unable to control the game and out a victory. It is a familiar English failing.
Especially against a Montenegro side missing one of their few players of genuine quality in Vucinic, England should be able to get the win. It is hard to imagine it being pretty, however. Hodgson is naturally conservative and, though there are reports that he could throw in exciting young Tottenham winger Andros Townsend from the start, that is unlikely to change here. The nerves could well be jangling all around Wembley into the final stages, but with a fit Jack Wilshere and an in-form Daniel Sturridge, England should just do enough to get a crucial win.
England 2-1 Montenegro
Where to watch: The 2014 World Cup qualifier will kick off at 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by Fox Sports 1, with a delayed online stream available via Fox Soccer 2Go.