This time next year all of the talk will be of the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, and England need to make sure that they’re part of the conversation.
Two points behind Montenegro in qualifying Group H―a gap which would grow to five should the Montenegrins beat Ukraine in Podgorica next Friday―the English find themselves in somewhat of an uncomfortable position with four matches of their campaign remaining.
The prospect of a tricky two-legged play-off tie to reach Brazil won’t be one that would thrill manager Roy Hodgson, so he’ll be targeting four victories from the Three Lions’ remaining matches to plot a way towards the finals.
Before those qualifiers comes a couple of intriguing friendlies though.
On Sunday, England will face the World Cup hosts at their iconic Maracana stadium, but prior to that comes a Wembley date with near neighbours the Republic of Ireland.
It is the first meeting between the countries since rioting at the Lansdowne Road stadium in Dublin saw a friendly match abandoned in 1995, but everyone will be hoping that it is the football which will take centre stage this time around―not least of all Hodgson.
Under Hodgson, England have only won by more than a one-goal margin on three occasions―twice against San Marino, widely regarded as one of the worst teams in the world, and once against Moldova, who aren’t much better.
Hodgson will be hoping that his side can hit the goal trail against veteran boss Giovanni Trapattoni’s side, who so disappointed in losing all three of their matches at the Euro 2012 finals last year.
That need for creativity and goals hasn’t been helped by the withdrawals of four players through injury―captain Steven Gerrard, his Liverpool teammate Andy Carroll, Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and the Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley, who sustained a calf injury during his side’s thrilling 5-5 draw with West Brom on the final day of the Premier League season.
Following his two goals in a final-day defeat to Norwich, Manchester City midfielder Jack Rodwell has been called into the squad for both matches as cover given the absences of Gerrard, Wilshere and Cleverley.
Other than that and the inclusion of Reading’s promising young goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, there are very few surprises in Hodgson’s 21-man party for the two games, with the manager confirming that confirming that either Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney or Chelsea’s Frank Lampard will captain the side in the fixtures if Lampard’s Chelsea teammate Ashley Cole opts not to wear the armband on the occasion of his 100th cap against the Republic.
As for the Irish, Trapattoni is continuing to attempt to remodel the squad following some high-profile retirements after Euro 2012.
Vying for a play-off spot with Austria and Sweden in a World Cup qualifying Group C, which is predictably dominated by Germany, the Republic are preparing for a must-win qualifier at home to the Faroe Islands next Friday in which they can seize the initiative in the battle for the play-offs given that Austria play Sweden on the same evening.
While Hodgson has the luxury of calling up a player such as Rodwell―who cost Manchester City an initial £12million when they bought him from Everton last summer―Trapattoni doesn’t have such luxuries, with Hull City’s Stephen Quinn called into the squad for the first time in six years as a replacement for the injured Leeds United midfielder Paul Green.
Norwich’s Anthony Pilkington has had to pull out due to injury, while Wolves forward Kevin Doyle is also unavailable. Republic captain and LA Galaxy forward Robbie Keane can play after his club gave him special dispensation.
Will his presence be enough to worry England? Probably not.
With Rooney eager to put club frustrations behind him and players such as Lampard, Michael Carrick and Daniel Sturridge all in fine form, the hosts should have enough to win narrowly.
The World Cup still needs to be aimed for, and this will be a good confidence boost for Hodgson and his side.
Prediction: England 2 Republic of Ireland 1