LONDON – If England beats Moldova at home Friday night and then defeats Ukraine (a) and Montenegro (h), it will top Group H and qualify automatically for the World Cup finals next year. Its fate is in its own hands. The bad news is — so is Ukraine’s.
You can put as much top spin as you like on possible permutations, but Roy Hodgson would rather be in Ukraine’s shoes than England’s. Of Ukraine’s four remaining games, two are against the doormats of San Marino, as guaranteed a six points as there are in football.
Even though the visit of Moldova should present few problems, there is more pessimism than optimism about England securing a place at Brazil 2014 with three straight wins, which would make the final tie at home to Poland academic unless the Poles win their upcoming games by big margins.
While England is unbeaten, it has only defeated Moldova and San Marino in Group H. Draws, which have become its speciality, will not be enough as the business end of qualification approaches. Assuming England beats Moldova at Wembley, a loss against Ukraine in Kiev next Tuesday would not spell the end of England’s chances of winning the group mathematically, but it would have to beat Montenegro and Poland at home and hope Ukraine slips up at home to Poland. A big ask.
Realistically, next Tuesday is a winner-take-all scenario and having won its past three ties, including away games against Montenegro and Poland, Ukraine is the in-form team with confidence high. Apart from having the easiest run-in, most of the Ukraine squad plays in its domestic league which started a month before the Premier League, so for them all early season cobwebs have been blown away.
England’s cause is not helped by the absence through injury of Wayne Rooney and Glen Johnson, who would both have been in the starting XI, plus the versatile Phil Jones.
Rooney is the leading scorer in the group with five goals, including both goals in the 1-1 draws in Montenegro and Poland.
Frank Lampard’s penalty against Ukraine at Wembley means the Chelsea midfielder is the only other England player to score against a team apart from minnows San Marino and Moldova.
A one-man team?
Draw your own conclusions.
Hodgson is a conservative coach, preferring a back four, four in midfield and a “false” striker playing off the center-forward. He is unlikely to change now and his record of seven draws in 18 competitive matches suggests his side will struggle to beat all three of its main qualification rivals.
Despite his pragmatism, in its last 10 games only San Marino has failed to score against England, so we can assume England will need at least one goal in Ukraine to avoid defeat.
Danny Welbeck will almost certainly lead the attack against Moldova, with Tom Cleverley or Steven Gerrard playing just behind him. Welbeck’s selection is a simple decision for Hodgson because alternatives are thin on the ground. Daniel Sturridge, who has a thigh injury, is unlikely to be risked while Ricky Lambert has only 23 minutes of international experience.
Welbeck has all the attributes to be a prolific goalscorer — except for scoring goals. He scored only one for Manchester United last season, his supporters pointing out he was asked to do a lot of closing down and tracking back which restricted his goal-chances.
Welbeck, 22, is strong, has the speed to come away from defenders and an energy level that makes him so valuable for the team. But a striker still needs to score a few goals.
Assuming he is fit, Sturridge will be chosen to lead the line in Kiev. Only Robin van Persie and Christian Benteke have scored more goals than the Liverpool striker this year, but at 24 he is with his third big club, which prompted former Liverpool manager Graeme Souness to say: “There must be a reason for this.
“Why would Manchester City and Chelsea let a promising young player go? There have to be questions about him, maybe his attitude.”
What cannot be questioned is that he is in the form of his career, scoring the winning goals against Stoke, Aston Villa and Manchester United plus two against Notts County in the League Cup.
He’s criticized for being selfish, but Sturridge makes things happen, enjoys playing through the middle and has a wonderful composure in front of goal. England will need this form to continue in Ukraine.
THE GETTING-your-retaliation-in-first excuse for possible World Cup qualification failure, highlighted by new Football Association chairman Greg Dyke on Wednesday, is the dwindling number of English players in the Premier League. This column has never bought into this excuse or agreed with those, like Dyke, who hint there is something of an anti-English campaign in the Premier League.
The percentage of English players in the elite league is now 32.
“I don’t wish to be xenophobic,” said Dyke and you knew what was coming. “The (Premier) League is largely owned by foreign owners, managed by foreign managers and played by foreign players and that, as a result, it could be argued that the England setup has been weakened, rather than strengthened, by the creation of the Premier League.”
It could be . . . but the weakness in the argument is that England has failed to qualify for the World Cup finals three times — in 1974 and 1978 when there were a high percentage of English players in the all-British and Irish old First Division — and 1994 when the Premier League was 60 percent English.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.