Riddled with injuries, England faces two decisive World Cup qualifiers
Sunday was a grim day for Roy Hodgson. It started badly as the England manager was denied a seat in the directors box at Anfield, seemingly because there were too many sponsors who had to be accommodated. Hodgson initially had to take his place in a section of seats usually reserved for scouts. The day got worse as confirmation came that Wayne Rooney will miss the upcoming World Cup qualifiers with a head injury, and it deteriorated further as Phil Jones and Glen Johnson were forced out of Liverpool's win over Manchester United with injuries, Daniel Sturridge suffered a groin strain and Jack Wilshere, battling stomach cramps, had to come off before halftime in Arsenal's victory over Tottenham Hotspur.
As the dust settles, it seems Wilshere will recover in time to take his place in the England squad, while Sturridge will be unavailable against Moldova on Friday. He had a groin problem before kickoff but played on and, while he seemed confident he would be available, his club manager Brendan Rodgers was more cautious, saying that the injury would need to be assessed.
This, really, is the problem of international management. The constant withdrawals, the refusal of clubs to allow the national team to take risks with their players, makes it almost impossible for any side to generate a rhythm or a pattern of play. Of the side that started the friendly against Scotland last month, at most eight will be available to Hodgson for the games against Moldova and Ukraine.
These are crucial matches. As Hodgson has admitted, there is a very real danger that, for the first time since 1994, England will fail to qualify for a World Cup. At the moment, England lies second in the group, two points behind Montenegro with a game in hand, a point clear of Ukraine and three ahead of Poland, with only the side that finishes top guaranteed qualification, the best eight runners-up from the nine groups playing off for the four remaining slots.
Moldova, whom England faces on Friday, shouldn't pose too much threat, although it has improved markedly since England won 5-0 in Chisinau a year ago. In six subsequent games, it has conceded only six goals, and took a point from a home game against Poland as well as beat San Marino away. While a big victory shouldn't be expected, winning by three or four would bolster England's goal-difference sufficiently that it could reasonably expect to finish above any team it finished level on points with. Although England has a goal-difference 12 better than Ukraine at the moment, it scored 13 times in two games against San Marino, who are yet to face Ukraine.
Realistically, Ukraine will win those two games -- the first of which takes place in Lviv on Friday. It also faces Poland at home, while England finishes with home matches against Montenegro and Poland. That means that if England wins its three remaining home matches and avoids defeat in Kiev next Tuesday, it will qualify, but that is a big if.
Then there is the even greater danger that England might not only fail to qualify at all, but might even miss out on the playoffs. It has, after all, never beaten Montenegro in three previous attempts and is still haunted by what happened at Wembley 40 years ago, when it missed out on the World Cup the first time by failing to beat Poland. Which of those sides is a serious challenger will be determined on Friday when they meet in Warsaw.
When the draw was made, there was a widespread perception that England had been fortunate, avoiding some of the bigger names outside the top tier of seeds, the likes of France, Sweden and Belgium. The real danger, though, is always the third-best team, the one that can slide into second in the group -- which is what happened to England in failing to qualify for Euro 2008 when Croatia topped the group and Russia pipped England for second. Then, as now, there was an awkward fourth force -- Israel back then -- that took points off England at home.
This campaign feels a lot like that one. There is a listlessness about England, a frustrating habit of drawing games in which it has looked comfortable: it was by far the better side early on against Montenegro in Podgorica and ended up clinging on for a draw and similarly took the lead in Poland before conceding a soft equalizer. Then as now there were constant injury problems and then, as now, there were major doubts over the form of the goalkeeper.
Back then it was in Moscow that England's campaign really fell apart, as it was beaten 2-1 by Guus Hiddink's Russia. The task now is to make sure Tuesday's game in Kiev against Mykhaylo Fomenko's improving Ukraine doesn't take on the same significance. Friday against Moldova is about making sure England gets points on the board and, ideally, improving the goal-difference. Hopefully for Hodgson, the remnants of his squad will gel into some kind of cohesive shape; the real test comes next week.