England expectedly secured a comfortable win against Moldova last week, but the real test of their ability to reach next year’s World Cup comes with a trip to Ukraine on Tuesday. Since his appointment, Mykhaylo Fomenko has rejuvenated Ukraine’s qualification campaign with four successive wins. And his opposite number’s chances of achieving a positive result are further dampened by leading a squad severely weakened by injuries and suspensions.
The majority of the problems have come in attack, where talisman Wayne Rooney will again be missing through a deep gash to his head. With Andy Carroll also ruled out, Daniel Sturridge not fit enough to return and Danny Welbeck given a harsh booking to leave him suspended for the match in Kiev, Ricky Lambert has suddenly ascended to the role of a key performer in Hodgson’s squad.
The Southampton forward has spent all-but the last two seasons outside of England’s top two divisions. Yet, he has not looked out of place among England’s best, most of who have been venerated since they were teenagers and Lambert was working in a beetroot factory. Indeed, in the 4-0 win over Moldova at Wembley, the 31-year-old was arguably England’s top performer. He scored his second goal in as many matches, following the game winner on his debut against Scotland last month, but more eye-catching was the way he dropped deep and fed in the pacier players around him.
That ability could be compromised, however, against Ukraine with Welbeck missing out. Hodgson has confirmed that the Manchester United forward’s replacement will be the only change to the side to take on their rivals for the all-important top spot in Group H. Favorite to get the role is James Milner.
Hodgson is a naturally conservative, reactive manager and the dependable Milner is the likely option in a match where a draw would keep England in pole position to qualify but a defeat would suddenly take their fate out of their hands. Milner has more quality on the ball than his detractors often give him credit for, but he does not have the pace or the inclination to make the kind of incisive runs that Lambert could supply to really hurt the opposition. There is a danger too that England’s lone front man could be isolated.
Hodgson’s potential desire to be cautious down the flanks is understandable with that area of the pitch containing Ukraine’s chief threats. While striker Marko Devic offers more presence than goal-scoring ability, Yevhen Konoplyanka on the left flank and Andriy Yarmolenko on the right are real dangers, as England know from the former’s goal at Wembley last year. England’s defense, which is as weak as it has been in recent memory, could do with some protection, but the risk of ceding all initiative to the home side is a grave one.
When the sides met in Euro 2012 as well as in the reverse fixture in this qualifying campaign 12 months ago, England were too passive. In truth, they were somewhat fortunate to emerge with a win from the first of those matches and a draw from the second.
A midfield three of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and, perhaps crucially, Jack Wilshere, should be better equipped to enjoy purposeful possession. Alongside Lambert, the trio impressed against Modolva. They will now have to get the better of wily former Bayern Munich midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk.
Gerrard’s role will likely be diminished into sitting mere yards in front of the back four. It is a role with which he has improved as he has shed some of his infamous tactical ill-discipline. His distribution will also be key and in particular avoiding over using the glamor, direct balls forward for which he has a natural disposition.
Still, old tendencies die hard for Hodgson and his players. A bitty, defensive performance is likely to await of the sort produced in drawing with Montenegro, but it should be good enough to get a point and just about stay on course for Brazil.
Prediction: Ukraine 1-1 England
Betting odds: England are marginal 7/4 favorites to get the win with Bet 365. A Ukraine victory is priced at 9/5, with a draw available at 9/4.