World Cup 2014: Evaluating England's Chances for Qualification
Failure might not be an option, but with four matches left in England's World Cup qualifying campaign, it is a possibility.
Tuesday's 1-1 draw at Montenegro left England with 12 points from six matches in UEFA's Group H. Montenegro lead the group with 14 points, while Poland and Ukraine, both with a game in hand, have eight.
According to goalkeeper Joe Hart, the mood in the English squad remains upbeat. Speaking to the Press Association (via FIFA.com), Hart said: "We are not contemplating failing to qualify. That's not even crossing our minds at the moment."
He continued: "We've got ourselves in a strong position and we've got Montenegro to come at home and, if we win all the games now, we finish top of the group. That's the way we are going to have to view things. We are in this position now so we've got to move on from it."
That sounds nice and all, but the reality of England's situation is much more worrysome.
Following Tuesday's draw, the English press has entered full-on freakout mode. The Daily Telegraph reported that the Football Association could lose up to £26 million if the Three Lions fail to qualify. The Independent, meanwhile, fretted about the possibility of facing France in the qualifying playoffs.
Are they right to worry? Are England in trouble? Or is Hart right to remain confident? Let's look at England's remaining fixtures to find out.
As a reminder, the first-place team in each UEFA group qualifies automatically for the 2014 World Cup. The top eight second-place teams enter the playoffs, where England should be seeded.
England vs. Moldova (Sept. 6, home)
This should be an easy win. England have beaten Moldova three times out of three all-time without conceding a goal (via Daily Telegraph). Playing on home soil, England should have no trouble extending that streak.
Add three points to England's total.
Ukraine vs. England (Sept. 10, away)
This is where the task becomes tricky for England. Ranked 48th in the world, Ukraine earned a point in London last fall and will present perhaps an even stronger challenge on home soil.
England, however, should have extra motivation, knowing that a victory could be vital to their hopes of winning the group. But will that be enough? And if they do take a lead, can England hold it this time?
For now, a draw seems most likely. That makes four points for England in two matches.
England vs. Montenegro (Oct. 11, home)
This is the big one. Realistically, England must win this match to have any hope of finishing atop the group. The problem is the Three Lions have never beaten Montenegro.
Montenegro held England to a scoreless draw at Wembley last year. On Tuesday, the teams drew 1-1 in Montenegro. The only other encounter between the teams ended 2-2 in Montenegro in 2011, when Wayne Rooney was sent off for a rash challenge.
Predict an England victory at your own peril.
England vs. Poland (Oct. 15, home)
England have lost only once in their last 18 matches against Poland, but Poland do have a history of hurting England's World Cup qualifying chances.
Will England qualify for the World Cup?
By this point in qualification, England could be fighting for first place—or a spot in the playoffs. The teams drew 1-1 in Warsaw last October. Home-field advantage could prove decisive in this one.
In review, then, England should be assured of three points against Moldova. After that, it's far less certain. Victory at home to Montenegro would be important but not necessarily expected. For England's final four matches, a return of eight points seems realistic.
If England's four fixtures do produce eight points, Montenegro would have to collect only six for England to win the group (even then, it would be on goal differential). Montenegro have tough games against Ukraine (home), Poland (away) and England (away) before finishing with Moldova at home.
Clearly, much will depend on the matchup between England and Montenegro in October, but Moldova's matches against Ukraine and Poland could be almost as interesting to English viewers.
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