WIN in Montenegro and England are favourites to qualify
LOSE and there’s an international crisis
By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
The preparation to the week that will go a long way to shaping England’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign could hardly have started worse. Instead of the focus being on an improving and dangerous Montenegro after the lesser demands of San Marino, Riogate has dominated the build-up.
Whatever the rights and wrongs surrounding Rio Ferdinand’s England call-up and withdrawal, wherever your sympathies or any perceived agendas regarding the 34-year-old Manchester United defender, it has not been the ideal start to the next games on the road to Brazil.
“It’s going to make England seem a little incompetent with poor lines of communication,” said Patrick Barclay, columnist for the Independent on Sunday and Evening Standard. “This may be a little unfair. The start of all this was Rio’s rather impetuous statement that he’d be ready to pack his bags at a moment’s notice. There was an asterisk missing with ‘medical advice permitting.’
“But it is a poor beginning to what is an absolutely vital game [against Montenegro] because of what England are playing for.”
Montenegro lead Group H after four games with 10 points having beaten San Marino twice, drawn at home with Poland and a 1-0 victory in Ukraine. England are second with eight points after a draw in Poland, a home victory over San Marino, an away win in Moldova and a 1-1 draw at Wembley against Ukraine.
In the Euro 2012 qualifiers Montenegro draw 0-0 at Wembley, with Wayne Rooney sent-off during the 2-2 draw in Podgorica. Montenegro may be relatively new to FIFA as an independent team having joined in 2007, but Barclay said: “They are a solid, experienced well-knit side. At Wembley they were extremely well organised, a good all-round side with a quality player up front in Mirko Vucinic of Juventus.
“If you offered Roy Hodgson four points from the ties in San Marino and Montenegro he’d be tempted to take it. It will be very important for England to keep their discipline and not have anyone sent-off again because it will be difficult enough with 11 players.”
Ideally Hodgson’s team would be one with regulars playing well for their clubs in the Barclays Premier League. That will not be the case and Gary Cahill’s absence through injury for the San Marino leaves England with a problem in the centre of defence already without Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott no longer a first choice at Manchester City. In attack Danny Welbeck did a fine job for England last year, but has scored only one goal in 22 league appearances, many as a substitute, for Manchester United.
Barclay said: “It seemed like a good idea for England when Chris Smalling left Fulham for Manchester United because he was such a promising defender, a right-back we thought. He’s started fewer than half of United’s games this season with injuries compounding the problem.
“I was sorry to see Michael Dawson pull out, most of us thought he was worth another England chance on his club performances. Steven Caulker shows potential for Spurs, yet if you put him in you’d have to keep your fingers crossed.
“Welbeck stamped his authority on the European Championship as a real player, but he goes back to United and has to fight for a place with Robin van Persie.”
Against Montenegro, Hodgson will probably choose Cahill, if fit, and Smalling who played together in the 2-1 win over Brazil last month. The midfield against the 2014 hosts was Theo Walcott, Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverly though Wilshere is injured.
Barclay said: “Gerrard’s form for Liverpool this season has been a big plus for England. He has found a way of conserving his energy and in this respect the arrival of Philippe Coutinho has helped. The Brazilian has taken a load off Gerrard’s shoulders in midfield while the return of Lucas has also been a bonus.
“Gerrard is not a worry. Michael Carrick is in good form, so is Cleverly…it’s a question of getting the balance right. I don’t think England have had a completely balanced midfield since Owen Hargreaves became unfit. Every top country in the world has a holding player, a ball winner, except England. For me, when he was fit Hargreaves was the first name on the team-sheet. I don’t think England have replaced him.”
Before the challenge of Podgorica there is the inevitable victory over San Marino in the Serravalle Stadio Olimpico on Friday. True, San Marino made history in November 1993 scoring after 8.3 seconds which remains the fastest World Cup qualifying goal though England went on to win 7-1.
In the FIFA rankings nobody is below San Marino, the third smallest state in Europe after Monaco and Vatican City and who have never won a competitive game (with only one friendly victory, against Liechtenstein).
Barclay said: “I have no problem with the likes of San Marino and Andorra being in the World Cup, but they should have to pre-qualify, as in the Champions League. I don ‘t agree with those who say it would lessen these countries’ chances of progressing. You would find they will build confidence with matches at a level closer to themselves and that could be carried on into the next stage.”
There are nine European groups with each winner qualifying for Brazil 2014. The eight best group runners-up will be paired into four home-and-away playoffs. If teams are even on points at the end of group play, the tied teams will be ranked by:
1. goal difference in all group matches
2. greater number of goals scored in all group matches
3. greater number of points obtained in matches between the tied teams
4. goal difference in matches between the tied teams
5. greater number of goals scored in matches between the tied teams
6. greater number of away goals scored in matches between the tied teams if only two teams are tied.
Barclay does not believe Hodgson should rest key players against San Marino, despite the risk of injury or a red card. “It’s important at international level more so than at club level to keep the understanding between players,” he said.
England last failed to qualify for the World Cup finals in 1994, but in a tight, competitive group with, in many respects, little to choose between England, Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine there is no room for error. Barclay said: “All World Cups are important, but this one in Brazil has a little more stardust. If you could use a cricketing analogy it’s an Ashes series…you want to be there more than ever.
“I am nervous for England. If they win in Montenegro the whole nation will breathe a sigh of relief because England could consider themselves favourites [to qualify]. I think this is a potentially exciting era for England coming up. I don’t necessarily think they will win the World Cup, but if they can build a team – and Hodgson is doing that – then at Euro 2016 in France…if they can get a team and not just 11 players it could be a really thrilling European Championship for them.”
And if England lose in Podgorica? “There is no question a defeat for England would be extremely damaging. People will be asking if Roy Hodgson is the man to take them forward. At the moment most recognise we have the right man in charge, what’s more he’s an English manager and that’s important. Should England lose, suddenly there’s an international crisis, that’s how big this game is.”
P W D L F A Pts
1 Montenegro 4 3 1 0 12 2 10
2 England 4 2 2 0 12 2 8
3 Poland 3 1 2 0 2 5 5
4 Moldova 4 1 1 2 2 7 4
5 Ukraine 3 0 2 1 1 2 2
6 San Marino 4 0 0 4 0 16 0