By Ewan Roberts
Ten months into his new role as manager of England and Roy Hodgson now faces the most important couple of days of his short reign. On Friday night his injury-hit side travel to San Marino, conscious that only a convincing win will satisfy public expectation, before taking on group leaders Montenegro in a must-win tie on Tuesday evening.
England have already dropped four points in qualification so far and, assuming Branko Brnovic's side beat Moldova and England can overcome San Marino, defeat in Podgorica would leave the Three Lions five points adrift and fighting just to cling onto second place.
There are shades of Steve McClaren's ill-fated tenure about the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, which has produced a cocktail of uninspiring minnow-bashings mixed with laboured, strained performances against more competitive sides – this time, Montenegro and Poland have taken over the roles of Eastern European antagonists from Croatia and Russia.
Hodgson's side, worryingly, have yet to click, yet to lay down a marker, yet to give a performance that makes other nations sit up and take notice. The 2-1 victory over Brazil, while heartening, was not the watershed moment that England needed – a home friendly against the 18th placed side in Fifa's world rankings, behind the likes of Switzerland, Greece and Ecuador, is hardly the greatest of litmus tests.
Not like Zagreb in 2008. Fabio Capello, then newly appointed, had presided over plodding, ponderous performances until Theo Walcott’s hat-trick inspired England to a 4-1 mauling of Croatia – the side who had blocked McClaren's route to Euro 2008.
|EFFECTIVE BUT LABOURED
England's competitive games with Roy
||France 1-1 England
||Sweden 2-3 England
||England 1-0 Ukraine|
||England 0-0 Italy (2-4 pens)
||Moldova 0-5 England
|Sep 11||England 1-1 Ukraine|
|Oct 12||England 5-0 San Marino|
|Oct 17||Poland 1-1 England|
Though England have yet to be beaten in qualifying for Brazil 2014, they have looked uninspiring and laborious and could muster only draws against Poland and Ukraine, requiring a very late equaliser against the latter. They also remain reliant on veterans, remnants of the "Golden Generation" that have promised so much without ever delivering.
There's a sort of stasis about England – the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Three Lions may have a new manager, a new captain and a fresh outlook, but Hodgson still faces the same problems that blighted predecessors.
The England team, and their chances of success, are still wholly reliant on two players: Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere – players burdened by the weight of expectation placed upon them. Without them, England are devoid of world-class talent and will have virtually no chance of lifting the famous trophy in Brazil in just over a year from now.
But there are concerns over Rooney's form and temperament – he was sent off on his last visit to Montenegro – while he is no longer the talisman he once was. Wilshere, currently injured and unavailable for selection, represents a lone ray of creative spark and technical dynamism on the barren landscape of English talent that knows only industry and hard graft – traits that appear to be lauded more under Hodgson.
It is over a year since Capello resigned over the FA's decision to remove John Terry of the captaincy, yet that particular cloud still hangs around the England camp. It reared its head once more when Rio Ferdinand withdrew from the squad to face San Marino and Montenegro; the Manchester United centre-back had been ousted in favour of John Terry for the Euros, with Hodgson offering a weak excuse for his exclusion, and for now the 34-year-old has rejected the former West Brom manager’s olive branch.
Likewise, where Capello was forced to swat away questions about David Beckham's England future, and whether the MLS was of a suitable standard for a player hoping to be called up, Frank Lampard's possible move across the Atlantic is dominating the agenda. Would a move across the Pond end his international career?
Hodgson has also tried to implement a meritocracy, but many of the players who should be in the squad on merit have pulled out or have not been picked. Nowhere is that more apparent than in central defence: England's options this week are Chris Smalling and Joleon Lescott, who have started three and four league games respectively in 2013, as well as youngster Steven Caulker and the uncapped 27-year-old Steven Taylor. It hardly inspires confidence.
One area of significant improvement, however, is the harmony of the squad. "It's a very happy, comfortable squad with Roy in charge," said Lampard earlier this week. "I [find] him a very personable bloke…very easy and friendly to talk to."
You get the impression that the team walked on eggshells under the previous regime, with approachable, Croydon-boy-done-good "Roy" bringing a softer, more informal touch than "Signor Capello" and his barely existent grasp of the English language.
In truth, though, England have evolved little under Hodgson and look no closer to winning the 2014 World Cup than they did the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. Hodgson may have installed a friendlier camp, but it's yet to produce results and should England stumble once more this week, the Honeymoon period will be well and truly over.
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