Hodgson Left with Plenty to Ponder on England's Rocky Road to Rio
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Both England manager Roy Hodgson and captain Steven Gerrard were upbeat following Tuesday night’s tense 1-1 draw with Montenegro in their World Cup qualifier in Podgorica, repeating the message that the Three Lions’ hopes of making it to Brazil 2014 were still very much in their own hands.
"It's still in our hands - we have to play Montenegro at home, Poland at home and Ukraine away."
"We have three of our four games at home, so we will try to make certain we keep it in our hands by winning those," was Hodgson’s post-match assessment of the current situation in Group H with only four qualifiers left to play.
Hodgson is right, of course, both to remain positive and to stress that all is not lost for his side, despite the nagging feeling that their trip to the Balkans represented a case of two points lost, rather than one point gained on the road to Rio next summer.
England will feel confident that with Moldova, Montenegro and Poland all still to play at Wembley, sandwiched between a tricky looking trip to Ukraine, their World Cup dreams remain alive, for now at least.
However, what is also not in doubt is that Hodgson has still to mastermind a victory over one of England’s three other group rivals after three attempts and following Tuesday’s other results. Make no mistake about it, Group H has now become a four-way fight all the way to South America, something the manager was keen to avoid from the outset.
And, with only the group winners guaranteed automatic qualification to next year’s show-piece event, England have no room for any slip-ups in their final four qualifiers, meaning each fixture now comes with a large dollop of pressure attached.
It also means that Hodgson now needs to turn draws against group rivals into victories if England are to both close the two-point gap on leaders Montenegro and remain ahead of the chasing duo of Poland and Ukraine, starting against the latter in September.
Of course, by then the manager will hope to have a clean bill of health among his players, with the likes of Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Dawson, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere all absent from proceedings on Tuesday—the last two crucially as far as England were concerned.
Will England qualify for the 2014 World Cup?
But I doubt very much there are many supporters out there who would claim, hand on heart, that they are fully confident of watching their side compete in next summer’s World Cup, while the man in charge must also be starting to wonder if he is set to join pilloried recent predecessors Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren in the England managerial hall of shame in failing to qualify the nation for the finals of a major international tournament.
There is always the fall-back option of the playoffs to cushion the blow of not topping the section, but again, not even the runners-up spot in the group is now a certainty, especially with both Ukraine and Poland still to play.
And with teams of the quality of Sweden, Portugal and France all currently lurking dangerously in second place in their respective groups, the beaches of Rio suddenly look a very long way away indeed for Hodgson and Co.
The Football Association (FA), like any sensible international organisation, will already have a succession plan in place were the Doomsday scenario to materialise, although Hodgson was awarded a four-year contract when he replaced previous manager Fabio Capello last May, leaving the governing body with a tricky dilemma.
Failure to qualify the country for the finals of a major international tournament has always resulted in the national team manager being handed his P45, whether that be McClaren (2008), Taylor (1994), Don Revie (1977) or Alf Ramsey (1974), so there is no reason to expect the FA will make an exception for Hodgson.
The only factors that could possibly see the 65-year-old remain in his post would be a combination of both a reluctance to undergo a managerial change once again so soon after the previous upheaval and a belief that Hodgson has been doing a steady, if unspectacular, job, and therefore should be given the opportunity to see the project and his contract through to the end.
Of course, there could also be one other factor that plays an important part in the decision-making process and that is who exactly is there to take on this poisoned chalice of a role, as top-level candidates, especially of the English variety, are not exactly crawling out of the woodwork at present.
The obvious choice would be to turn to Queens Park Rangers manager Harry Redknapp, who many expected to be given the role in the first place when Capello resigned last year, only for the FA to spring a complete surprise by opting for Hodgson.
However, if Redknapp was not seen as being right 12 months ago, then I struggle to see how he would suddenly fit the bill a year later. Other leading English candidates would be Newcastle United boss Alan Pardew and West Ham United head coach Sam Allardyce, although would either do that much of a better job than Hodgson with the same players at their disposal?
And then there is always the nuclear option of bringing in hired help once again from abroad in the form of, say, a Jose Mourinho, but again you feel the FA would be loathed to go down that route so soon after their difficult relationship with Capello.
However, there is one name, or shall I say names, out there who would make for an interesting dream team of a managerial duo that would cause quite a stir were it ever to happen. ... How about an England coaching team of Gary and Phil Neville?
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