Speak to overseas football enthusiasts or even fans of our more neighbourly rivals and you’ll find that we England supporters aren’t always held in the highest regard. There are many reasons for this, endlessly diagnosed and debated and sometimes justified, and one of them is a sense of entitlement, the perception that we assume semi-final appearances in major tournaments.
Are we really guilty of such hubris? These days things are probably a little different, and most intelligent supporters are well aware of England’s realistic position in the international football pecking order. Nevertheless there is no doubt that the majority expect England to at least qualify for these biennial festivals of football, and for some it never enters their mind that we might not achieve this.
As a collective we’re forever talking about what will happen at the next competition as if qualifying for it is a simple formality, a stance deriving perhaps from experience but also, if we’re honest, from a bit of national arrogance, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, mean that not qualifying for a competition becomes unthinkable. 1993 and 2007 both saw off England managers who failed to make the cut.
Four games into qualifying for FIFA World Cup 2014 England are by no means a cert to avoid that fate. With just one guaranteed qualification place from Group H, the points England have already dropped will do them no favours when it comes to counting the tallies in October.
Routine wins over San Marino and Moldova surprised nobody but draws against Ukraine and Poland have left Roy Hodgson’s side on the wrong side of the all important dotted line. In isolation a point in troubled circumstances in Warsaw was respectable, but if England draw or lose to the three next best teams in the group then we must beat them at Wembley. The 1-1 against Ukraine represented a substantial toeing of the top of the first hurdle.
As it stands England are in second place having won twice and drawn twice in an unbeaten run of four qualifying games. The team on top is Montenegro, two points ahead with three wins and a draw to their names.
Branko Brnović’s team have played and beaten San Marino twice, however, and this is a feat England will undoubtedly match when they return to competitive action in Serravalle at the end of March. It’s another of Montenegro’s early results that I believe should be more of a concern for Hodgson and England. If we assume that matches between England, Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro will define the group, then it’s certainly advantage Montenegro at this stage.
They failed to beat Poland at home but they have won one of these key duels, picking up three points from their visit to Kiev last October. It’s too simplistic to judge England’s current position as false because we have San Marino to come; Montenegro must still play Moldova twice.
Both England and Montenegro have fixtures against Poland and Ukraine and in all likelihood there will be a pretty messy mix of results. Most crucially England also have a couple of fixtures this year against the Montenegrins and our destiny – as they say, sometimes even with a straight face – is in our own hands.
Before long we’ll know just how this is going to shake out. After March’s visit to the Most Serene Republic it’s off to Podgorica for what is arguably England’s most important qualifier four days later. If England can follow up a win in San Marino with victory in Montenegro they will be top of Group H by the end of March and sitting pretty having negotiated six games unbeaten.
Lose, and the pressure will really begin to build. Montenegro will be five points clear and England will instead be concerned primarily with fighting off the challenge of Poland. With four games remaining after March this would be a position of some weakness, and the home games against Montenegro and Poland become even more vital.
Those two games are our last in qualifying and will take place four days apart in the middle of October. No pressure, lads.
(Photo credit: jfjwak via Flickr)
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