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NOT THE FULL MONTE, SO ENGLAND SHOULD QUALIFY FOR BRAZIL 2014

WHILE members of the Football Writers’ Association are confident that England will qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals, Dejan Saviević, president of the Montenegrin Football Association, is worried that his country’s hopes of success have been hit by injuries to four key first-teamers for the first of the two matches that will decide England’s World Cup fate.

What is certain is that if England beat Montenegro and Poland at Wembley they will be in Brazil next summer. However, England are becoming the draw specialists and at the sharp end of the qualification programme one point in either game is likely to see them finish second to Ukraine.

As Ukraine have Poland at home and then a trip to San Marino next Tuesday, the current Group H second-place team are a good bet for six points. England must match that total to avoid the playoffs or perhaps the nightmare scenario of being spectators when the World Cup kicks-off next summer.

England and Montenegro have played each other three times, each game ending in a draw. While England have not lost a competitive home tie since 2007, under Roy Hodgson they have won six and drawn six of their 12 Euro or World Cup matches. The stats may offer little comfort, but Saviević is concerned by Montenegro’s injury list: Juventus striker Mirko  Vučinić, goalkeeper Mladen Bozović, centre-back Marko Basa and midfielder Miodrag Peković have all been ruled out of the Wembley showdown.

“You don’t expect to lose four key players,” said Saviević. “We are in a bad situation, but we can promise that we will give you 100 percent of our opportunities. It is going to be difficult, but all the players are still giving maximum and we are happy with that. We’ll see what happens. We have achieved our first target at the start of qualifying, to be in with a chance of qualifying until the end.”

Goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksić, set to play his first competitive game in four years, added: “This is the most important game in the history of Montenegro, the most important in my career.

“It is going to be difficult, both for me and for my team-mates, but I am physically and mentally completely ready. We’re going to London to give a 100 per cent dedication and courage, and see what happens in the end. I am certain that all who play from the first minute will give the maximum, despite the handicaps, and a lot of times before we have proved to have a strong collective. We’re a real family,

“It is important that we do not concede a quick goal. The pressure is on England because they want to triumph in front of their home crowd. We have nothing to lose, we’re going to Wembley as outsiders, decimated numerous injuries. Maybe it is fate that this is our opportunity.”

Footballwriters.co.uk asked Evening Standard columnist Patrick Barclay; Andy Dunn, sports columnist of the Sunday Mirror and chairman of the FWA; Oliver Kay, chief football correspondent of The Times; Martin Lipton, chief football writer of the Daily Mirror; James Olley, chief football correspondent of the Evening Standard and David Woods, chief football writer of the Daily Star, about England’s World Cup fate…

DO YOU THINK ENGLAND WILL FINISH TOP?

Barclay: Yes, England to finish top.

Dunn: Yes.

Kay: With some misgivings, yes I do.

Lipton: Yes. I hope. But maybe not!
Olley: Yes. England have struggled of late, but two wins at Wembley to reach Brazil should not be an equation beyond their capabilities.
Woods: Yes.


IF NOT, WHO WILL?

Lipton: Only Ukraine. But all depends on Friday night v Montenegro.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE 1-2-3 OF THE GROUP?

Barclay: England first, Ukraine second, Montenegro third.

Dunn: England, Ukraine, Montenegro.

Kay: England, Ukraine, Montenegro.

Lipton: Hopefully, England, Ukraine, Montenegro.
Olley: England, Ukraine, Montenegro.

Woods: England, Ukraine, Montenegro.

WHICH WOULD BE ENGLAND’S BEST AND WORST PLAYOFF OPTIONS?

Barclay: Best – Hungary. Worst – Portugal.

Dunn: Best – Hungary. Worst – France. (Are we sure we can really get these teams?!) – If England are in the playoffs they should be seeded – at the moment the top four playoff seeds (see below) are Croatia, Portugal, Greece and Russia – Portugal and Russia are in the same group – with England next. England could play either Hungary or France – though until all qualifiers are completed nothing is definite.

Kay: Several of them would worry me, particularly France, Portugal, perhaps Sweden and Greece too. I’ve not got huge faith in this England team, but I do believe they’ll win the group.
Lipton: The draw will be seeded, so England probably won’t get Croatia, Greece or Portugal. In order (best to worst): Iceland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Sweden, France.
Olley: I wouldn’t fancy England over two legs against France. By contrast, Iceland have already lost three times in a poor group, conceding 14 goals in the process.
Woods: Well, the worst would be Portugal (because of a certain Mr Ronaldo).


SHOULD HODGSON STICK BY HART?

Barclay: Yes.

Dunn: Yes.

Kay: Yes. He should also have looked beyond Hart and taken a look at Hart and/or Ruddy in some of the friendly matches; since Hart’s form began to dip 12 months ago, he has played all but 45 minutes out of five friendly matches, which seemed questionable at the time and looks even more so now. You need to know what your back-up options are in case your first choice is injured or loses form. Hart has lost form – that’s undeniable – but I would still go with him on Friday.
Lipton: Yes. In the words of Margaret Thatcher (not somebody I would habitually choose to quote) There Is No Alternative.
Olley: Yes. Now is not the time to change goalkeepers. England should have experimented before now to ensure they could call on a viable alternative. Once qualification is assured (hopefully), that process can belatedly begin before the finals.
Woods: Yes, but only because he [Hodgson] foolishly has not given anyone else a real chance in friendlies or easy games.

IS THERE A WILD CARD PLAYER YOUY WOULD LIKE TO SEE PLAY? BARKLEY? TOWNSEND?

Barclay: Maybe Townsend, but it’s a time for experience and Milner’s defensive work is important. Baines is best attacking from left-back and should play regardless of Cole’s fitness.

Dunn: Andros Townsend.

Kay: I’m concerned by the lack of options on the wings. I don’t really like Welbeck in that position and Townsend strikes me as a substitute rather than a starter. I like the idea of Baines on the left wing, though that kind of option  often seems to work in better theory than in practice and won’t happen now because of Ashley Cole’s injury.
Lipton: No. Although he might go for Townsend rather than Milner on the right.
Olley: Townsend could get the nod due to injuries elsewhere and he is in good form, but remains very raw. Sooner or later, Phil Jones needs to start playing regularly at centre-back to realise his full potential.
Woods: Townsend, who is playing with “no fear” as he himself said after Chelsea game.

WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE TO WIN BRAZIL 2014?

Barclay: Brazil.

Dunn: Brazil.

Kay: Spain.

Lipton: Argentina.
Olley: Germany. Spain’s dominance surely cannot continue for a fourth successive tournament although they will no doubt contest the latter stages, as will Brazil and Argentina.

Woods: Boringly, it has to be Brazil.

WHO QUALIFIES FROM THE EUROPEAN SECTION?

There are nine European qualifying groups and the eight best runners-up will go into the playoffs, two legs played on a home-and-away basis, to determine the four remaining European slots for the final tournament. As one of the qualifying groups has only five teams and the others all have six, the results against teams ranked sixth will not be taken into account when determining who are the best runners-up. It will be decided by points, then goal difference, goals scored, goals scored away from home and, if necessary, on disciplinary ranking.

HOW WILL THE PLAYOFF SEEDINGS WORK?

The eight teams will be seeded in two pots with the four highest-ranked teams placed in one pot. The ranking will be based on the FIFA world ranking published on October

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