Already three points into qualifying for FIFA World Cup 2014, England face one of the most important matches of the campaign on Tuesday evening. With Moldova and San Marino unlikely to provide any resistance, Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine will be the teams England must overcome to secure the only automatic qualification place. If the home games all produce wins then England will have a solid foundation from which to build, and Ukraine are the first team to come to town.
England’s Group H start against Moldova was a winning one, but one can’t read too much into its lessons. The combination of poor quality opposition and an almost inhumanely early opening goal meant the game was finished as a contest after just three minutes. Any praise or criticism, analysis or interpretation, must take that into account. Still, a win is a win and there’s no cause for complaint going into a far trickier challenge against Ukraine.
The England squad has lost a starting player since the game in Chisinau on Friday. Chelsea captain John Terry picked up an ankle injury against Moldova and limped away down the tunnel to leave Roy Hodgson with ten men on the field, and over the weekend it was confirmed that he wouldn’t be available to play against Ukraine.
His Chelsea colleague Ashley Cole will also be absent. He returned to the club for treatment on an ankle problem after being ruled out of the Moldova game and his hopes of winning his 99th cap against Ukraine were dashed on Saturday by confirmation that he would not be ready to return to international action in time. Leighton Baines of Everton will continue at left back.
Assuming Joleon Lescott doesn’t inexplicably lose his place, Terry’s replacement will play alongside him. A former team-mate, Phil Jagielka, is one possibility. Terry’s Chelsea colleague Gary Cahill, who missed UEFA Euro 2012 because of a late injury sustained against Belgium, is the other and perhaps the more likely choice. As a long-time supporter of Cahill’s I’d like to see him pick up international experience at every opportunity, but Jagielka is a thoroughly adequate alternative.
England and Ukraine last met as recently as June, when England defeated their hosts in the final Group D match at Euro 2012. The win at the Donbass Arena was secured thanks to Wayne Rooney’s simple back post header, but controversy would soon take over. Oleh Blokhin’s men thought they’d equalised when Marko Dević’s shot kicked up off Joe Hart and was cleared away from behind the line by Terry. Artem Milevskiy had been offside in the build-up in any case, so justice was done, kind of.
Milevskiy is not one of the familiar faces remaining in the Ukraine squad. Experienced goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov will start in goal, and 33-year-old skipper Anatoliy Tymoshchuk retains his place in the midfield. Dević is part of a skeleton staff up front, while Serhiy Nazarenko, Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka lead Blokhin’s bumper midfield corps.
Former AC Milan and Chelsea striker Andriy Shevchenko has retired from international football after a worthy swansong in Ukraine in the summer. His contribution was not quite enough to ensure the co-hosts’ progress at Euro 2012 but gave supporters in Kiev plenty to cheer and England plenty to think about ahead of that final group game in Donetsk. Ukraine are a different proposition now, but the bright young stars will now be looking to make the step up and lead the side. England’s full backs won’t have an easy evening.
James Milner, who scored against Moldova, isn’t worried about Terry’s absence:
“It is not going to weaken the team in any way, obviously JT (Terry) is a top player and will be tough to replace but we have got a number of top candidates who can step in…I think that you can see with the strength of the squad and the players we do have, we are fortunate we have got a number of options who can step in there Jags (Phil Jagielka), (Gary) Cahill or a number of other ways the manager could go.”
Lampard is well aware that Ukraine will be a much trickier challenge than Moldova:
“They are certainly going to come to Wembley with intentions to make it difficult for us and show what they are about, so we will have to be on top form. We need to rest up, prepare right and try and keep the level of performance we are producing.”
But the last word must go to Blokhin, still quite unjustifiably bitter about the non-goal in the summer.
“The England game was frustrating for us. First of all our goal was ruled out. The referee made two mistakes. Of course it hurt us but it’s history. We dominated the game and we did not deserve the result. We were the better team, we surprised England and we can do it again.”
Course you were. My money’s on an English win on this occasion too. Sorry, Oleh.
(Photo credit: Photocapy via Flickr)