Roy Hodgson’s job starts here. The England manager has taken charge of a couple of friendlies and the UEFA Euro 2012 campaign, but the tardy nature of his appointment means that he has effectively been a caretaker manager up until this point. On Friday night, England open their FIFA World Cup 2014 qualification quest with a visit to Chisinau, where they’ll face Moldova for only the third time.
The previous two meetings between these sides were comfortable England wins en route to World Cup 1998. Like Roy Hodgson’s men, Glenn Hoddle’s charges started their qualifying group in Chisinau and returned home with a 3-0 win in the bag thanks to goals from Nick Barmby, Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer. The return match at Wembley is better remembered for its chronological proximity to the death and funeral of Princess Diana. The teams paid their respects before England pulled Moldova apart to win 4-0.
Hodgson’s first meaningful assignment is to guide his team to qualification for the World Cup in Brazil in a little under two years’ time, and if he does it in anything like the style Hoddle oversaw in 1996 and 1997 then we’re all in for a treat. That’s unlikely, however. Hoddle’s team arguably was the last genuinely good England side and that was as much down to the players available as the man who managed them. Hodgson’s style is different, as is his player pool. Pragmatism is the order of the day.
With just one Group H place guaranteeing qualification, England will have their work cut out. Standing in their way along with Moldova are Montenegro, San Marino and Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine (England’s opponents next week) and Poland. Thankfully, England won’t be playing San Marino needing a seven-goal margin on the final evening of the group – it’s Poland at home on October 15th next year.
It would be disingenuous to pretend I had any idea what England will be facing in Zimbru Stadium at the end of this week. Their players generally earn their keep by playing domestically or in Eastern Europe, with their highest profile players on the books of clubs in Russia. Azerbaijan, Romania, Ukraine, Israel and even the Kazakhstan Premier League have been represented by players in Moldova’s recent squads. They’re very much an unknown quantity.
England will be without key players. Wayne Rooney sits out this month’s double-header against Moldova and Ukraine after sustaining an ungodly gash on his upper leg while in Premier League action for Manchester United. Rooney unavailable, Andy Carroll’s loan move to West Ham United was a welcome opportunity for the Liverpool man to get some football under his belt before joining the England squad, but he’s now out with a hamstring injury.
Chelsea’s flying left back Ashley Cole will also miss the Moldova fixture because of an ankle problem, which took him back to Chelsea for treatment early this week. He may be available for England’s second qualifier next Tuesday evening at Wembley.
The squad has a disappointingly familiar look for those of us who were hoping for England to look a little different by the time of the next World Cup. It has the personnel for a strong line-up, though. Joe Hart will play behind a defence that might very well be anchored by a Chelsea duo of Gary Cahill and John Terry, with Leighton Baines and Kyle Walker on either side.
Steven Gerrard will captain the side but the rest of the midfield should be up for grabs. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley are both available, but there have been reports that Hodgson will be the latest England chief to attempt to crowbar Gerrard and Frank Lampard into the same midfield. At 32 and 34 years old respectively, now’s not the time to be trying to solve this problem. It’s frustrating that they’re both still considered first team material for England, and it shows our weakness relative to the teams around us.
Jermain Defoe is likely to be asked to step in for Rooney, and he’s certainly up for the challenge after a bright start to the Premier League season and a brilliant goal in his last international outing. If he gets the call, it will be his 50th cap:
“It will mean the world to get the 50th cap be honest. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, speaking with my family about. It is a good achievement. It’s been ups and downs with England but that is football. The last campaign I got off to a flier in with a hat-trick against Bulgaria. Then a few days later I was having an operation on my ankle. You almost have to wait for your chance again, you get back in the squad and it is important to stay there.”
England are understandably confident, but according to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain they will not be complacent:
“We will approach the game in the same way whether we are playing Brazil or Moldova. We will look to win the game and play it in the right way. I will have to wait and see how it’s going to go but it’s the international stage and it’s tough.”
Almost regardless of circumstances, you’d have to be unhinged to predict anything other than an England win on Friday evening. Ideally it will be comfortable, but three points must be the consistent focus throughout a group campaign with only one automatic qualification place.
(Photo credit: Guttorm Flatabø via Flickr)