World Cup place on line for mediocre England


England’s national football team is like the English weather. Rarely very good, seldom that bad . . . a sort of middle line, occasionally hitting a high like beating Brazil (albeit in a friendly at Wembley) but generally a safe bet with few extremes.

It is a long time since England raised the pulse consistently. The pattern is to qualify for major finals without too many worries and then combust, losing in the knockout stages on penalties. The team’s results and performances are as predictable as our weather.

The equation is simple for Brazil 2014: if England beats Montenegro on Friday and Poland next Tuesday, both at Wembley, it will top Group H and qualify for the World Cup finals next year. Anything else will almost certainly see England in the lottery of the playoffs or perhaps even finishing third and missing out on Brazil completely. With two games to go, England could finish first, second or third.

Ukraine is favorite to overcome Poland in Kharkov on Friday and will beat San Marino in its final game. Montenegro finishes its qualifying program with a home match against Moldova — if it triumphs at Wembley the chances are it will finish runnerup to Ukraine. A draw at Wembley on Friday would probably see Ukraine win the group and England going to the playoffs as runnerup.

The stats offer little comfort. England has never beaten Montenegro, but Montenegro has never beaten England, all three games between the countries ending in draws. Roy Hodgson is unbeaten in 12 competitive games in charge, though England has drawn six of those matches.

Hard to beat, but at the business end of qualification, draws are not enough. England’s last competitive home defeat was six years ago, 3-2 to Croatia which meant failure to qualify for Euro 2008 and Steve McClaren was sacked the next day.

Most worrying is that to date, England has only beaten Moldova and San Marino, achieving the minimum of results to keep it in with a chance in the final straight. True, England has scored 25 goals — only Germany has scored more in the European qualifiers — yet all but three of them were against the two minnows.

Montenegro has not won any of its last four matches, but only one of those ended in defeat — the 4-0 loss to Ukraine in June. Coach Branko Brnovic remains upbeat despite being without at least three regular first-teamers, his confidence coming from the fact his team has won three of its four away games — the other was a draw — scoring nine goals on its travels, conceding three.

He said: “We can do it. We have the quality and this team play much better away than at home. My players do not need any special motivation for such games, because to play against the great England team at Wembley is something that every player dreams about.”

England will have to raise its level of performance on Friday and next Tuesday for Poland’s visit to qualify automatically. It should not be beyond a team full of players who, by and large, perform well for their clubs in one of the world’s most competitive leagues.

On the other hand, their performance level dips when they pull on an England jersey and they have shown little to give reason for genuine optimism.

Hodgson is a cautious, pragmatic coach and that approach has seen England pick up points on its travels. The game in Ukraine last month was a predictable draw of numbing tedium. Too often central defenders Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka knocked the ball long upfield, bypassing the midfield where two players operate far too deep to cause opponents problems.

Greg Dyke, chairman of the Football Association, implied Hodgson will not be fired even if England fails to qualify for the finals. He said: “Roy’s doing well and up to now he’s doing a good job. I think continuity matters, and Roy has an advantage because he knows all the people who run English football. It’s important to get the structure in place. You see it in club football all the time — you bring in a new manager, everything gets thrown out and it’s a disaster.

“It would be bad news for English football if we didn’t qualify, there’s no doubt about that, but you can recover. I look back on the times we didn’t qualify in the past and we all thought it was a disaster, but we recovered. However, it would be bad news.”

It would also produce a huge media and fan backlash. What would work in Hodgson’s favor is a lack of viable successors, which in itself is a sad comment on the English game.

Hodgson refused to become involved in any what-if speculation. He said: “What’s the point? What’s the point of me thinking about those things? I don’t think we’re going to lose the game.”

If there is optimism in England that England will qualify, it is based more on the fact it usually does more than because of faith in a talented team.

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