LONDON – No English clubs left in the Champions League and a growing possibility of Montenegro, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Panama at the 2014 World Cup but not England. March has not been a good month for the country that gave the world its favorite sport.
The usual European suspects — Germany, Spain, Italy, Holland and Russia — top their qualifying groups with England left licking its wounds after a 1-1 draw that felt more like a defeat against Montenegro, the leaders of Group H.
Since missing out on USA ’94 England has qualified for the last four World Cups with few problems. Its fate is still in its own hands, Roy Hodgson boosted by the fact that three of England’s last four qualifying games are at home, the manager overlooking or forgetting that in the last three years the national team has won only two of five competitive games, failing to defeat Switzerland, Montenegro and Ukraine.
The two victories were against San Marino and Wales, so optimism is in short supply.
Forget friendly wins over Brazil and Spain, in international football you are judged by the real thing and though two losses in 15 games under Hodgson looks impressive, there have been five draws and in the current round of qualifying matches England has failed to beat main rivals Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro.
Hodgson may not have a vintage crop of players at his disposal yet there are growing doubts about whether he is making the most of them. Impressive in the first-half in Podgorica, after the interval Montenegro exposed England’s familiar failings, the manager unable to counter the telling introduction of goal scorer Dejan Damjanovic.
Hodgson’s Plan B was to stick with Plan A and in the second half a nation whose population is 630,000 taught England a lesson in passing, how to retain possession and tactical nous. It is becoming a sadly predictable scenario.
Central defenders Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling are not regular choices for their clubs, a situation no other top country would tolerate.
Jack Wilshere offers hope yet injuries have restricted the Arsenal midfielder to just three of the last 22 internationals.
Smalling, Phil Jones, Kyle Walker, Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have potential, but in the meantime Hodgson will rely on Glen Johnson, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, James Milner and Wayne Rooney as the basis of the team for the friendlies against the Republic of Ireland, Brazil and Scotland before the 2014 qualifiers resume in September.
England players remain confident, in public anyway, but supporters fed on a diet of international underachievement are bracing themselves for a playoff place or even worse.
BACK HOME, the countdown begins. Manchester United needs 13 points to be certain of winning the Premier League, a figure that would be reduced should second-place Manchester City falter. The fat lady is gargling.
It is a question of when rather than if United is crowned champions for the 20th time. United would have to fail to win more than half of its remaining fixtures for any team to even have a mathematical chance of catching it.
While the general belief is that this is far from the best ever United side, it could become the first team to win 100 points (Chelsea’s 95 eight years ago is the record).
The Reds have equaled the most ever victories after 29 matches of a top division season — 24, along with Tottenham in 1960-61 and Chelsea in 2005-06.
United has won 14 games by one goal and unlike its rivals, it usually finds a way to win. Sir Alex Ferguson will place the challenge of beating Sunderland at the Stadium of Light on Saturday and Chelsea in Monday’s F.A. Cup quarterfinal replay at Stamford Bridge in the hands of two different teams.
The 15-point cushion gives Ferguson breathing space but two games in 48 will see the manager utilizing and rotating his squad. He said: “Freshness is the name of the game now with the intensity of vital games coming in quick succession. My role becomes even more important in selecting the right teams, with freshness the operative quality. It’s not necessarily putting out your best team, it’s picking the freshest. This will be a real problem with the players coming back at the end of the international break after playing two games involving long flights, particularly with Chicharito in Mexico (against the U.S.) and Shinji Kagawa with Japan (in Jordan on Tuesday).”
United’s so-called second XI would still contain 11 full internationals, though should Sunderland win stand by for complaints from other teams battling against relegation zone that a less-than- full-strength opposition helped the Black Cats. Ferguson’s response would be interesting, probably short and to the point.
It is difficult to put a case for Sunderland, which will be without injured leading scorer Steven Fletcher, against whatever side Ferguson selects. Of 23 Premier League encounters between the clubs, Sunderland has won one.
United has won its last six league matches, keeping a clean sheet in the last five. Sunderland has taken three points from the last 21 available.
Chelsea faces an even more grueling fixture schedule with four games in eight days — Southampton away on Saturday, United at home on Monday, Rubin Kazan in the Europa League quarterfinals at home on Thursday and Sunderland at home on Sunday week.
By then the Chelsea fans may be too exhausted to even boo Rafa Benitez.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.