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England not a lock for Euro 2012

by Christopher Davies

There has always been an arrogance about the English where football is concerned.

Too often we think the world should revolve around us and others should dance to the English tune.

England wants to dictate the terms of the transfer window and the international calendar because it suits them. We know best, after all we invented the sport.

When the draw for Euro 2012 was made, for many qualification was as good as guaranteed.

Wales?

It was below Moldova in the FIFA rankings.

Bulgaria?

On the wane.

Switzerland?

Boring and beatable.

Montenegro?

Who?

Yet it is the world’s newest national team, which only came into existence after the 2006 World Cup, which could force England into the Euro playoffs.

The worst-case scenario is that England fails to qualify for next summer’s finals, and should that happen, Fabio Capello, who will not renew his £6 million-a-year contract, will leave sooner rather than later. There would be more cheers than tears for his departure.

England has three games remaining starting with a potential banana skin in Bulgaria, and does not want a must-win trip to Podgorica in October, but so far Montenegro has kept pace with its Group G rivals, drawing 0-0 at Wembley.

A photo-finish looms. If Montenegro does not slip up against Wales on Friday, it will set up what will inevitably be called the battle in the Balkans on Oct 7.

Montenegro plays Switzerland four days after that match. If it and England win their September games, a home win in Podgorica is likely to mean Montenegro needing just a point in Basel to top the group.

On Friday, England plays Bulgaria in Sofia, while next Tuesday it entertains Wales.

Bulgaria is not a good side, though there is the danger that it will have one outstanding result in the qualifying campaign and England remains a prized scalp.

Since Lothar Matthaus, an old adversary of England from his days as West Germany captain, took over, Bulgaria, beaten 4-0 at Wembley last September, has lost only one of five games.

“If we give our best and get the fans behind us, we could surprise England,” said Matthaus.

The 2-2 June home draw against Switzerland has put pressure on England, which trailed 2-0 in the first half after goals by Tranquillo Barnetta, but a Frank Lampard penalty and an Ashley Young equalizer gave Capello’s team a point when three were expected.

Wayne Rooney, who was recovering from a hair transplant (and suspended) missed that game but he is available in Sofia, and is playing as well if not better than at any stage in his career, resuming his role as the best English footballer of his generation.

He is over the fitness problems of last year, benefiting from a summer’s rest and listening to Rooney it is easy to see why he says he is “in a happy place on and off the field.”

Rooney and Manchester United have started the season brilliantly, Rooney scoring a hat trick in the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal.

His energy, strength, speed, unselfish running, work-rate and clinical finishing have been a joy to watch in the opening games, yet while United rarely underachieves, England still leaves supporters scratching their heads.

How can a side with so many leading players disappoint so often, particularly at home?

In the past year England has been defeated by France and drawn against Montenegro, Ghana and Switzerland at Wembley.

Tactics and motivation are the main theories put forward, but with Euro qualification on the line Team England knows what to expect for another failure in the wake of the 2010 World Cup debacle.

“It’s something I want to put right and with the young players coming in the team I’m confident we can be successful,” said Rooney

Capello is likely to select United defender Chris Smalling at right-back with Young supporting Rooney in attack.

Said Capello: “Bulgaria and Wales are really important games for us. We play the last game in Montenegro and need to be top of the group before that one. It will be a very difficult match.’

Probably not as difficult as Wales’ match against Montenegro on Friday. Wales, bottom of the group, is, along with Andorra, Malta and San Marino, one of four teams without a point in Euro 2012 qualification.

Gary Speed’s side is hardly brimming with confidence at the moment after losing seven of its last eight games and slumping to an all-time low of 117th in the world rankings.

Wales has never beaten either Yugoslavia or any of the independent entities that have emerged since civil war tore the Balkans apart in the 1990s.

But like Bulgaria, Wales may have one decent result in its Euro qualification. England hopes it will be in Cardiff tonight and not at Wembley next Tuesday.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.