LONDON – Roy Hodgson’s main concern as England begins its qualification program for the 2014 World Cup finals on Friday is that Moldova will be seen as a walkover.
Over-confidence is understandable if unprofessional. Moldova is rated 137th in the world by FIFA and 47th out of 53 in Europe above Malta, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, the Faroe Islands, Andorra and San Marino.
It has won eight of the 42 internationals it has played, mainly against the aforementioned six, so the loss of left-back Ashley Cole because of an ankle injury on Tuesday was hardly likely to give England manager Hodgson sleepless nights. Believing victory is a certainty is more worrying.
England also has Wayne Rooney, Scott Parker and Gareth Barry unavailable, but even without the quartet it will be one of its biggest humiliations in World Cup history if the visitors leave Zimbru Stadium in Chisnau with anything other than three points.
It is not an entry Hodgson wants on his CV and he has constantly reminded his players of the danger of underestimating even the most humble of opponents.
“They are technical players but basically unknown outside of Eastern Europe,” her said. “We have done as much research as we can to work out what they’re like. We have to make sure we go into the game with the best possible preparation and mindset.”
It does not take a tactical genius to work out that Moldova will park the bus and defend in a damage limitation fashion which will require patience and poise to overcome.
With Andy Carroll also injured, Hodgson is likely to prefer a 4-3-3 formation, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard starting a competitive game together for the first time since the 2010 World Cup finals.
Both are outstanding players but Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello tried and failed to transfer their club form to the international stage.
Hodgson will be the latest England manager to try to coax the best out of the odd couple but said: “I am not going to sit here and say ‘of course it can work.’ That would be flying in the face of quite a lot of evidence but they are both very good players and I don’t see any obstacles as to why they can’t play together.”
For Chelsea and Liverpool both operate best with a holding midfielder — Lampard has had Claude Makalele, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel, while Gerrard’s enforcers include Didi Hamann, Javier Mascherano and Lucas.
With Parker absent there is no natural midfield ball-winner so Michael Carrick may be asked to play just in front of the back-four, giving Lampard and Gerrard the freedom to go forward.
A front three of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Adam Johnson would be bold, James Milner replacing the Arsenal teenager a more pragmatic option.
With Joe Hart in goal and a defense comprising Glen Johnson, John Terry, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines, Hodgson will rely mainly on the old guard as the road to the Copacabana begins in Chisnau.
So old, that seven of the squad who went to the 2006 World Cup — Terry, Cole, Gerrard, Carrick, Lampard, Rooney and Theo Walcott — could be among the boys for Brazil eight years on from Germany.
England, beaten in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals on penalties by Italy yet somehow ranked third in the world by FIFA, then plays Ukraine at Wembley on Tuesday.
It was fortunate to beat the Euro joint-hosts 1-0 in Donetsk, saved by an additional official beside the goal who did not see the ball was well over the line as Terry hooked it clear.
Andriy Shevchenko has retired, but wingers Anatoliy Tymoschuk and Yevhen Konoplyanka have the pace to trouble England, though if Hodgson does not start with six points from two games then he really will have something to worry about.
THE FOOTBALL Association this week rescinded the red card given to Tottenham’s Tom Huddlestone by referee Mark Halsey during last Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Norwich. I never thought it was serious foul play at the time, only a cautionable offense, so common sense seems to have prevailed.
Except FIFA disciplinary rules state any player sent off must serve at least a one-match ban, but the F.A. ignores that. Having gone against a decision the referee has made, the F.A. also says it cannot take action against a player if the referee has seen the incident, even though FIFA says it can act under such circumstances.
So a player can break an opponent’s leg with an X-rated tackle and if the referee deems it as a yellow card offense, the F.A. claims it is powerless to act, which is not the case according to FIFA.
Why is the FA reluctant to ensure the punishment always fits the violent crime?
Because, I believe, disciplinary changes have to be agreed in conjunction with the influential Professional Footballers’ Association, who will do all they can to reduce the level of punishments to their members.
MICHAEL OWEN signed a one-year contract with Stoke on Wednesday. The deal is based on a pay-as-you-play basis and both parties will be hoping the striker’s injury problems are behind him.
As a Liverpool player Owen started 72 percent of Liverpool’s Premier League games; at Newcastle the figure dropped to 38 percent; during his three years with Manchester United he began just five percent of the Reds’ league matches.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.