England’s 150th anniversary celebrations have already seen them take on Brazil at Wembley; they beat the 2014 World Cup hosts 2-1. As part of the festivities, before the year is out they will have met Brazil on their home-turf, as well as taken on the Republic of Ireland and Scotland.
The matter of World Cup qualification has almost felt overlooked at times, with the country’s Football Association so fixated on celebrating 150 years. The build-up to the coming week’s qualifiers against San Marino and Montenegro has brought the reality of the situation crashing home.
England is sitting second in Group H behind next Tuesday’s opponents, and manager Roy Hodgson has had to deal with a host of selection issues. No disrespect to San Marino, but England is fortunate to be taking them on first on Friday.
Though they will be without the injured Jack Wilshere, there is enough in the squad’s midfield contingent to compensate for the Arsenal man’s absence—at least for a couple of games. The greater issue is in defense.
Hodgson opened up a can of worms with his decision to recall Rio Ferdinand. As good as the defender has been for Manchester United this season, it was and still is time for England to move on. Instead Ferdinand’s selection and subsequent withdrawal has dominated the headlines, adding an unnecessary burden to a defense that was already struggling to establish an identity in the wake of his previous absence and John Terry's retirement.
For all the arguments over picking the best players first and foremost, there comes a point in any team’s life cycle when it is time to move on. Ferdinand’s withdrawal on the basis of the call-up affecting his "intricate pre-planned programme" only goes to show he cannot be relied upon to do a job for the national team anymore.
That is not to criticise a player who has done so well in establishing a routine that allows him to play for his club. It is just a reality that England cannot accommodate any more.
The situation has been exacerbated by injuries to center-backs Gary Cahill and Michael Dawson. The latter missing out is a particular shame considering his good form for Tottenham Hotspur this season.
Getting three points against San Marino is, of course, the priority on Friday. However, against a team unlikely to test them too dramatically, it does offer England a vital chance to establish some semblance of familiarity in defense. Montenegro has proved they are a tricky opponent before, and need to be suitably prepared for.
Though generally inexperienced at international level, the central defensive options of Joleon Lescott, Chris Smalling, Steven Caulker and Steven Taylor have their positives. As for who Hodgson will actually choose, well that seems to have been complicated even more with newspaper stories indicating Michael Carrick may be utilized at the back (via The Guardian).
While Hodgson ponders this, he will be hopeful his midfield and attack can replicate the quality of their performance against Brazil. It was as good England has played for some time and followed on some positive showings from the autumn (albeit ones not always backed up by results).
As influential as Wilshere was in that game, the likes of Tom Cleverley, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will be expected to ensure there is minimal drop-off in England’s quality. Montenegro will provide a tougher test than San Marino in this regard.
Wilshere is crucial to England’s chances at major tournaments, but it will be a sorry state of affairs if players of the calibre mentioned above cannot step up for a couple of matches in his absence.
A win may be most important, but San Marino also presents an opportunity for England’s attack to find their range and rhythm before facing the more stubborn Montenegrin resistance. Much of this will be reliant on the fluidity and creativity of the midfield behind, but given the service, Wayne Rooney and Co. cannot waste it.
The phrase “acid test” seemed to garner a momentary popularity following Sir Alex Ferguson’s use of it ahead of Manchester United’s Champions League meeting with Real Madrid last month. It feels pertinent for the week England have ahead of them too.
Two wins and they will be looking good for automatic qualification to next year’s World Cup. We now wait to see how ready the Three Lions are for this challenge. If England do not respond, they will be beginning to run the risk of this summer’s friendly trip to Brazil being their last visit to the country for a while.