England in no shape to challenge World Cup favorites


Now that the 32 World Cup finalists are known, the English media have been choosing what they consider the easiest group England could have when the draw is made next month.

Switzerland, Costa Rica and Algeria represent the most popular dream ticket, though football writers in those countries, indeed many countries, probably have England among their favored pairings. Whoever England is drawn with, it will not be an easy group for Roy Hodgson’s team.

Before Euro 2012, England had managed to successfully lower the expectations of the nation to new depths prior to an international finals. The 2014 squad may even beat the Euro team for apathy.

Successive home defeats, for the first time in 36 years, by Chile and Germany means that at least England travels to the finals without the sort of pressure the World Cup heavyweights carry. The team makes it to the knockout stages and then we brace ourselves for another disappointment, usually after a penalty shootout, which has been responsible for England’s return ticket at six of its last 10 finals.

While the team qualified for Brazil unbeaten, there is not a single European country I would be confident of England beating. Switzerland? Perhaps. Croatia or Russia? Maybe. Certainly none of the South Americans.

Chile’s exciting and effective counter-attacking style, which saw it win 2-0, and Germany’s blend of strength and skill which brought it a 1-0 victory, underlined England’s frailties in defense, not that they needed underlining.

Joe Hart remains England’s first-choice goalkeeper, but to maintain this status he also needs to be Manchester City’s No. 1. Manuel Pellegrini’s selection for Sunday’s match against Tottenham will be eagerly awaited by Hodgson. At right back either Glen Johnson or Kyle Walker have pace, but lack defensive poise.

Of the central defenders — Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones — only Everton’s Jagielka is certain to start for his club. The probable first-choice partnership of Cahill and Jagielka is solid against lower- and middle-ranked opposition, though against football’s upper classes their limitations have been exposed.

While Ashley Cole’s defensive qualities should give him the nod ahead of Leighton Baines, the Chelsea left back must regain his place for the Blues to ensure his place in the national side.

Of the midfielders, only captain Steven Gerrard is a shoo-in. Hodgson seems as uncertain who else to play in the middle as he is about England’s formation. It is Gerrard and two or three others. Michael Carrick becomes a better player when he is injured, Jack Wilshere always seem to be struggling for fitness, Tom Cleverley has yet to truly convince, Frank Lampard will be 36 next June and cannot be expected to play every game, Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana have potential, but that can’t be fast-forwarded, and James Milner’s ball-winning is more suited to holding a lead than getting one.

Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge will probably be the focal point of the attack, though they are far from a potent partnership, failing to muster a shot on target against Germany. Width will be supplied by either Theo Walcott or Andros Townsend, but Hodgson admitted: “I don’t expect in the coming months to be watching games and suddenly find players I have never really thought of jump out at me and prove to be a lot better.”

Hodgson has one more friendly against Denmark before finalizing his provisional squad of 30. At least we can be excited about the Champions League.

* * *

DURING THE ’80s, there was a famous television comedy sketch in the wake of the surprise verdict of not guilty after former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was charged with the murder of his ex-boyfriend Norman Scott.

The sketch showed a politician accused of a string of offenses and the judge saying: “Would the jury go and consider their verdict of not guilty.”

FIFA have done something similar with the 2013 Ballon d’Or, effectively telling coaches and captains of all their national associations to consider their vote for Cristiano Ronaldo.

There is little doubt the Real Madrid striker deserves to finally win the most prestigious, but at the same time flawed, individual award in world football. For FIFA to put the voting deadline back to Nov. 29 and allow previous votes to be recast because of a “low turnout of votes” is tantamount to saying: “You saw his brilliant hat trick for Portugal against Sweden on Tuesday — we can’t have Franck Ribery or Lionel Messi (again) winning it . . . vote for Ronaldo.”

There is shifting the goalposts and then there is FIFA.

In 2013, Ronaldo has scored 64 goals, which is more than Liverpool (61), Arsenal (58), Manchester City (56), Chelsea (54) and Manchester United (54). He has been the World Player of the Year and then some.

The system, apart from the extra time and changing of original choices, is so obviously unfair that you would think even dodgy-vote specialist FIFA would realize. National team coaches and captains can vote for their own players and teammates, so their three choices become more political than professional. The only restriction is that the captains cannot vote for themselves. Put politely, the voting is not without bias. Put less politely, it is crooked.

It would have been interesting to put Iker Casillas on a polygraph and ask him if he really believed the best footballer of 2012 was his Real Madrid and Spain teammate Sergio Ramos. Gigi Buffon voted for Andrea Pirlo who, like the goalkeeper, plays for Juventus and Italy. Montenegro captain Mirko Vucinic didn’t vote for a fellow countryman, which really would have been pushing it, but he did the next-best thing and considered his Juve teammates Buffon and Pirlo the two best performers of last year. A coincidence, of course. Who did Germany coach Jogi Low choose? Who else but two of his own players, Mesut Ozil and Manuel Neuer.

The Netherlands’ Wesley Sneijder went for, yes, the Netherland’s Robin van Persie, and as surprising as snow in Siberia, Colombia captain Alberto Ypes plumped for . . . hope you are sitting down . . . Colombia striker Rademel Falcao. It is a farcical system that promotes open dishonesty.

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