Every once in a while in the qualifying for the World Cup and European Championships, there comes a time where there are key games in deciding each group. For the current qualifying games, pivotal matches from across Friday to Tuesday which can decide group winners and play-off chasers include Bosnia v Greece, France v Spain, Sweden v Ireland, Israel v Portugal (believe it or not, particularly after the 3-3 draw), Hungary v Romania, and finally Montenegro v England. Usually the winners of such matches, the really “big” games, progress through to major tournaments. The last time fans can remember such a feeling for a big qualifying game, Croatia came and rained all over the ‘Wally with the Brolly’ and his boys’ parade. A loss tomorrow could send the Three Lions into the snake pit of the play offs – a pit which is looking more poisonous at every glance.
As things stand, they play offs could look like containing increasingly scary teams from an England perspective. Starting with the old nemesis Croatia or the highly rated Belgians in Group A, a Berbatov-less Bulgaria (Group B), a Sweden team which trounced England last year (C), memories of a bad Euro 2000 Romania (D), Iceland or Albania (E), Portugal if they manage to even get the play offs (F), Greece (G) and last but not least, the mighty current triple-champions Spain in Group I, should they fail to win in Paris on Tuesday. Iceland/Albania apart, England could realistically struggle against every single one of those teams.
“But on paper, England should easily beat most of those teams!” I hear you say. The Lions have roared in beating Brazil and Spain, also managing to stay unbeaten (and uninspiring) during Euro 2012 over the last couple of years, but have also whimpered to a lucky draw in Poland, a home draw against Ukraine and have the recent history of failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2008. “England are 20 places above Montenegro in the rankings!” a minority may exclaim. We all know not only are the rankings a load of nonsense (Brazil lie 18th; not as great as past Brazilian sides but surely ahead of Ecuador, Switzerland and Greece?!) but they matter not in the heat of the battle tomorrow. Montenegro aren’t a great side but have genuine quality in their tigers up front, Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, who can cause any side harm on their day. Should the Lions have a whimpering day, England could well be facing down the barrel of another non-appearance at a major tournament. Defeat in Montenegro will leave England five points behind the leaders with four games to play, including a tricky trip to the Ukraine and hosting Montenegro themselves, who could put the Lions down. Two non-appearances in a decade sounds horrendous from an English perspective, but under Hodgson the players have delivered when it matters (barring Italy in the Euros) and don’t concede many goals, which bodes well even if play-offs are the road to take.
Should England not qualify, Hodgson will be removed from his job, and we will all be back to square one. However if the Three Lions roar, it will be remembered as a key game in qualification for the World Cup, and in Roy we will trust (until the inevitable penalty shoot-out exit in the quarter finals next year). Either way, it’s the only way with En-ger-land.