England World Cup Qualifying: 8 Biggest Reasons for Concern in Group H
When the draw was made for the European section of qualifying for World Cup 2014, few would have given much thought to England having trouble getting through—Group H contains, alongside England, Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and San Marino.
Roy Hodgson's team beat co-hosts Ukraine in Euro 2012 and as top seeds were heavy favourites to progress at the beginning of the matches.
Two games on and things haven't gone 100 percent to plan for Hodgson and England, although they currently sit second, level on points with Montenegro above them and Poland below them.
England should certainly still have enough about them to top the group—but there are several issues to be sorted if they are to do so comfortably.
Here are eight reasons for concern in getting through Group H.
If Joe Hart Suffers an Injury
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We'll start at the back of the team—the goalkeeper.
England possess reasonable depth in quite a few of the outfield positions, but the same cannot be said of the goalkeeping situation.
International retirements of Ben Foster and Paul Robinson for some reason caused concern for national team fans, not that they are anything like international class anyway, but it did leave Hodgson with only inexperienced players as backup for regular No.1 Joe Hart.
Hart has 24 caps so far; the other two goalkeepers in the last squad—John Ruddy and Jack Butland—have one cap apiece.
Both have their qualities and promise, in the form of Butland particularly, but neither are anywhere near the level of Hart.
Final Double Header of Fixtures
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England's fixtures are, for the most part, well planned out and give them a pretty great chance of picking up at least three points from each double-header.
The final round of games might be the one which causes them a headache though; England's final two qualifiers are against Montenegro and Poland in October 2013.
The biggest plus point here is that both games are at home, but both sets of opposition have started the campaign well and it could be that both only look to come to Wembley to sit back, frustrate England and look to counter attack.
Do England have the patience, creativity and quality in the final third to break down these teams and take the victory if that is the opposition's game plan?
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On September 24th, John Terry, former England captain, announced his retirement from the international scene.
Terry felt he could not continue playing due to a lack of support from the FA over his position in matter of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, which he was found guilty of on September 27th.
Love him or loathe him, England's defence has been formed in large part by Terry for almost a decade, as he won 78 caps for his country.
Now, at age 31, he will no longer represent the Three Lions—and England don't need to just replace him, they need to establish a new partnership which is good enough to first qualify and then make an impact at the World Cup itself.
Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka will be in pole position to begin with, but Gary Cahill will hope to play his way into the team too. None have yet reached 25 caps for England.
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There are two ways to view Roy Hodgson and his tactics: organised, safety-first, rigid, linear and dependable; or uninspiring, obsolete, dull, restrictive and negative.
Whichever your particular point of view, there is no doubting that Hodgson favours a deep-lying defensive quartet, two strong, athletic holding midfielders and forwards who work the channels, can hold the ball up and are clinical enough to score from few open-play chances.
Does this method suit England's players? Is it enough to get the best out of the hordes of talented youngsters trying to break into the international set up?
Time will tell.
Regular Strikers Playing Together
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This is a genuine area of concern for England.
Wayne Rooney is an undoubted and indispensable member of the first XI when fit—but is he going to be available often enough?
Over the past two years, Rooney has made seven appearances for England, missing various games through injury and suspension.
Compare that to left-back Ashley Cole, who has represented his country 12 times during the same period or goalkeeper Joe Hart who has figured 15 times.
If Rooney is missing half the games for his country, how is Hodgson supposed to establish a regular plan of attack to work in each game?
Andy Carroll and Darren Bent have also missed out on games through injury and not being picked, while Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge and Jermain Defoe have all also played up front for the nation within the past year.
Other call-ups have come for Bobby Zamora, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Frazier Campbell.
Having options is great—but Hodgson needs to establish a regular two or three who will lead the front line every match.
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Perhaps the biggest test for England will be in their last game before the aforementioned final double header, as they make the trip to Ukraine.
Ukraine indeed almost managed a win over England at Wembley, a late Frank Lampard penalty being needed to secure a 1-1 draw.
The Eastern Europeans will feel confident about getting a result on their own turf if they put in a similar display. Ukraine will be one of the nations looking to beat England to the top spot, and this will certainly be a pivotal game if they are still in with a shout come next year.
2nd Place Not Good Enough
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Group H contains six teams; the one who tops the group after all 10 matches will have an automatic pass through to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
Second place, however, will not be good enough for an automatic ticket.
Eight teams who finish as group runners-up will need to face a two-legged playoff to see which extra four sides go through.
But...there are nine groups, which means that the worst points tally out of all the teams who finish second will not be good enough for even a playoff spot.
England will still fancy their chances of topping the group, but it becomes even more important to do so when you look at the quality of nations they might have to face if they come second.
Would Roy Hodgson's men want to face a playoff against Group I runners up, which contains both France and Spain?
Group F, with Russia and Portugal? Or Group A, which will have a three-way tussle between Serbia, Belgium and Croatia for qualification?
England must make sure they finish on top; qualification is far from assured otherwise.
The Old Guard vs. the New Kids on the Block
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One of the biggest decisions Roy Hodgson has to make, and relatively quickly, is how many of the younger players he will be including in his plans.
With some of them having an exceptional impact at Premier League level, he may not be able to resist their abilities for long anyway.
Tom Cleverley, Kyle Walker, Ryan Bertrand, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Phil Jones, Jack Rodwell, Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere—that is some amount of talent ready to make an impact of some sort on the full England team, and all are aged 23 or under.
Considerably under, in the case of Sterling.
How many of these players will form the basis of Hodgson's team for the next two years? Which players will be relieved of duty after years of service?
Ashley Cole, Lescott, Jagielka, Steven Gerrard, Lampard, Michael Carrick and Gareth Barry are all over 30, and Jermaine Defoe will be joining that group next month.
This is a problem for Hodgson to sort out. A nicer problem than some of the others on this list maybe, but certainly still a problem which needs to be solved in the right way for England to progress.