After a win and a draw in their first two matches, England’s FIFA World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign continues this Friday evening against Group H’s weakest team, San Marino. It should produce a comfortable win for Roy Hodgson’s team and might have presented an opportunity to try out a few uncapped or inexperienced players were it not for the importance of the Under-21s playoff match against Serbia on the same night.
Before England head to the National Stadium in Warsaw they must deal with the representatives of this tiny enclave and add a much needed three-point haul to their qualifying total. A comfortable win against Moldova last month got the quest for qualification off to a flyer but the realities of the group hit home at Wembley, where Yevhen Konoplyanka’s stunning strike looked for a while to have won the game for Ukraine despite a relatively impressive England performance, at least in the first half.
Of course, England have history with the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. In 1993, the final night of qualifying for FIFA World Cup 1994 had the potential to be a dramatic conclusion. England faced San Marino needing to win by seven clear goals, but they also needed Poland to beat the Netherlands in order to make England’s progress alongside Norway possible.
Two Dennis Bergkamp goals put paid to any hope, but England carried on regardless and won 7-1. The damage was done inside the first ten seconds, when Davide Gualtieri connected with Stuart Pearce’s lazy backpass to make it 1-0. England manager Graham Taylor resigned soon afterwards.
San Marino have played just once in the current qualifying campaign, hosting Montenegro on September 11th and being spanked to the tune of six goals to none at the Stadio Olimpico. La Serenissima are now back on the bottom of the FIFA World Rankings along with Bhutan and Turks & Caicos Islands.
The San Marino squad, managed since 1998 by PE teacher Giampaolo Mazza, is almost entirely based locally. The only member of the group for the Montenegro fixture not to play his football in San Marino was midfielder Matteo Coppini, who plays in Italy for a little known team named Campitello. Marco Muraccini, Mirko Palazzi and Alessandro Bianchi – who were all called up in August but not September – all play their football outside San Marino’s borders.
England share San Marino’s dominance by domestic players, and welcome back a significant amount of firepower just in time to shoot some fish in a barrel. Wayne Rooney and Andy Carroll are available once again after missing England’s previous two qualifiers through injury, while Jermain Defoe’s scoring form in the Premier League perhaps makes him favourite to start. Ashley Cole, despite facing an FA charge for his idiotic tweet last week, will also be available to win his 99th cap.
The squad also features three uncapped players. Fraser Forster of Celtic steps in for Jack Butland as part of Joe Hart’s goalkeeping backup, with the Birmingham City goalkeeper called in for Under-21 duty. Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross comes in for former captain John Terry, who retired ahead of the guilty verdict in his FA charge for using racist language towards Anton Ferdinand. Liverpool’s Jonjo Shelvey is a late call-up.
Former England right back Gary Neville, now part of Hodgson’s pitchside coaching staff, says the players are aware of the pitfalls in matches like Friday’s, and must scare themselves into performing at their best despite modest opposition:
“My mentality when I played in games of this nature was always to scare myself. It was a preparation tool. I thought of what might happen, and believe the world would collapse if I didn’t win this game. That is what I used to do. When people tell you it is a certainty. I can’t stand here as an England coach and say England shouldn’t do anything but win on Friday. Nobody can.”
With Butland out and Forster no doubt eager to win his first cap on Friday, Hart has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be rested:
“I want to play every game. I don’t see the No.1 shirt as being all mine – but I want to make it mine. I don’t feel pressure from anyone else, only from myself, and the standards I set are high. I know if I keep to them then I am doing alright.”
Like Forster, Shawcross fancies a crack at an England debut:
“I’m delighted to be called up and I’m just looking forward to getting there and hopefully proving I’m good enough to be around the squad and to continue being in the squad in the future. It’s up to me to play well and see what happens. After that you never know.”
It’s difficult to predict the result of a game without coming across as the typical deluded Englishmen that certain other parts of the British Isles think we are, so I’ll just say this: England win.
(Photo credit: stevecadman via Flickr)
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