LONDON – England is top of its group with two home matches to play as qualification for Brazil 2014 approaches what Sir Alex Ferguson would call “squeaky bum time.”
They are the third-highest scorers in the European qualifying section and only two countries have conceded fewer. England is unbeaten and no other side has a better goal difference.
A reason for optimism on the face of it, but for most the glass remains half empty. The English media were more negative than positive after the 0-0 draw in Ukraine, Roy Hodgson angry and puzzled at the criticism of England’s display. Gary Lineker called it “awful” (a tweet he later deleted, probably after a call from a high-ranking BBC suit, but when you have almost two million followers it is too late). Such is the power of Planet Twitter and such is Lineker’s status that the A-word became back page news.
Yes, England’s fate is in its own hands, but the group table and stats are misleading. England’s position is not like Usain Bolt leading as he approaches the 200 meters finishing line. England must beat Montenegro and Poland at Wembley to guarantee first place in Group H and to date it has only managed three points against Moldova and San Marino. There is little evidence or cause for genuine optimism that England will beat two countries who have genuine hopes of furthering their own qualification causes.
We learned nothing new about England against Ukraine. It was another solid, resilient away performance in Europe with center-back Gary Cahill and left-back Ashley Cole outstanding. The problem is, we see this type of display at Wembley, too, and it is possible England could complete its qualification program unbeaten yet still not be part of the biggest event in world football next summer. Because of its number of draws, England has dropped to its lowest position in 12 years — 16th — in the FIFA rankings table that “reflects how well we are doing” when you rise, but is dismissed as “meaning nothing” when you slide down.
Had the game in Kyiv been the final match and England needed a point to win the group, Hodgson and his players would have returned home to heroes’ headlines. But it wasn’t and we are becoming accustomed to dogged displays — home and away — from a team that is as hard to watch as defeat. There was more perspiration than inspiration in Kyiv and while commentators, football writers and fans generally agreed that England’s failure to retain possession is bordering on embarrassing, Hodgson disagreed. Strongly.
“If you are prepared to seriously say the England team I am coaching can’t keep the ball, can’t play from the back and through midfield there is no point in having a conversation because we just totally disagree,” Hodgson told reporters who believed England couldn’t keep the ball, play from the back and through midfield.
In fairness to Hodgson, England has raised collective pulses only spasmodically in recent years. There have been too many false dawns and hopes of success from the national team have been replaced by a let’s-wait-and-see attitude, not least when it comes to a penalty shootout. After most England matches the conversation has a similar theme — long balls from defense — failing to retain possession and pass accurately. Those who were puzzled by the absence of Michael Carrick in a midfield of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere, where possession was surrendered cheaply, forget that the Manchester United ball-retention specialist played 90 minutes against Poland and Montenegro when England let leads slip in the second half of both games. It is incredible how a player’s stock can rise if he doesn’t play.
Wilshere has fitness troubles, but if the Arsenal midfielder is to be the player he was tipped to be when he burst on the scene he must score more goals. Or even one. Few can recall his last shot.
By the time the two final games are played next month, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge will be fit. Danny Welbeck, who missed the game in Ukraine through suspension, will be available though it was an unnecessary risk by Hodgson to play any player on one yellow card against Moldova, whatever the injury problems. Moldova should be beaten whatever team England puts out and playing Welbeck was a costly mistake.
As the qualifiers come to a cliffhanger end, Ukraine hosts Poland and faces San Marino in its final two games. Ukraine is guaranteed three points and six are a real possibility.
Montenegro and then Poland come to Wembley where England has been unimpressive recently. It was twice behind against Scotland last month while in May, it was uninspiring against the Republic of Ireland. The victory against Brazil, always a prized scalp, should be tempered by the fact the World Cup hosts were starting a new era under Luiz Felipe Scolari in his first match back in charge. England needed a late Lampard penalty to escape with a draw against Ukraine at Wembley a year ago.
One thing is certain: if Ukraine beats Poland and England fails to defeat Montenegro, England is looking at the playoffs at best. Because it would then be relying on San Marino to cause the biggest World Cup qualifying shock ever against Ukraine in the final game.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.