England avoid the travel and the glamour
Published 01/08/2011 | 00:00
For once Fabio Capello's English was spot on. Having considered the opposition in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group, Capello observed: "It will not be easy, but I think that England is better than the other teams."
The caveat is understandable. Capello knows it rarely is "easy" with England. While at Saturday's draw in Rio de Janeiro he was reminded of one reason for this, the propensity of key players to be injured. News reached him that Steven Gerrard was unlikely to figure in England's next two Euro 2012 qualifiers after suffering an infection in his groin. The Liverpool midfielder, who had groin surgery in March, had been in hospital to undergo a course of antibiotics.
Gerrard, who last played for England in November, is not expected to be back for his club until September so is almost certain to miss England qualifiers in Bulgaria on 2 September and at home to Wales four days later. He will also miss Liverpool's opening three league matches of the season, against Sunderland, Arsenal and Bolton, but could return for the game with Stoke on 10 September. At least Kenny Dalglish has a raft of midfielders to choose from having added Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson to a squad which also has Alberto Aquilani back from loan.
Capello, who had to do without Gerrard and Wayne Rooney when England were held to a draw by Switzerland at Wembley in their last qualifier in June, said: "It is not good news. Steven Gerrard is a very important player for us. It's been a long time this injury. I hope he will return quickly because he's one of the players that makes the difference on the pitch."
Capello will hope Gerrard is back for England's final qualifier, away to Montenegro on 7 October. The tie has taken on greater significance after the teams were paired in European zone Group H at the 2014 qualifying draw. Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and San Marino make up a group that looks negotiable, if unglamourous.
Capello will hope his assertion that "England is better than the other teams" survives the tie in Podgorica. Montenegro, having held England reasonably comfortably at Wembley in October, are level with England at the head of Group G. Defeat could plunge England into a play-off (possible opponents include Sweden and Russia) and deal a psychological blow ahead of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
England will at least be forewarned when they face Montenegro in the World Cup qualifiers, and may also gain further experience of conditions in Poland and Ukraine should they reach Euro 2012, as those countries are joint-hosting the event.
Of England's opponents only Montenegro (17th) are in the world's top 40 and none were at the last World Cup. Those with long memories, of Jan Tomaszewski in 1973, should bear in mind the Poles are more weary of drawing England than vice-versa. Though paired in six qualifying campaigns since, Poland have not beaten England and the only time England failed to qualify (World Cup 1994) Holland and Norway went through, not them.
The group involves some travelling, but the FA are relieved long-haul journeys – to countries such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan – have been avoided along with Turkey and Israel, trips which would have involved security issues. England are also happy not to have to face other British Isles opposition and delighted not to be paired with France. That was a 50-50 possibility as the draw due to a close. The French, who were easy winners at Wembley in November, will instead meet Spain.
That does raise the spectre of meeting France or Spain in the play-offs. All the more reason for Capello's successor to hope England top their group and qualify for Brazil automatically.
Lowdown on England's opponents
Ranked 17th in the world, Zlatko Kranjcar's side drew with England at Wembley in their qualifying group for Euro 2012. One of the newest nations in Uefa, the first competition they tried (and failed) to qualify for was last year's World Cup.
Star player Stevan Jovetic (21, attacking midfielder, Fiorentina)
Co-hosts of next summer's European Championships, Ukraine beat England 1-0 in Dnipro in qualifying for the last World Cup, but Fabio Capello's men defeated them 2-1 at Wembley.
Star player Yaroslav Rakitskiy (21, defender, Shakhtar Donetsk)
Familiar opponents for England; their meetings chart back to 1973 when goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski denied Alf Ramsey's side the chance of reaching the 1974 finals. Now weaker and may not have qualified for Euro 2012 had they not been co-hosts.
Star player Robert Lewandowski, (22, striker, Borussia Dortmund)
The nation against whom midfielder David Beckham won his first international cap in a 3-0 win in September 1996. Now ranked 85th in the world, they finished last in their 2010 qualification group without a win in 10 games.
Star player Alexandru Epureanu (24, defender, Dynamo Moscow)
The worst team in the competition, ranked 203, they have only ever won one match: 1-0 v Liechtenstein in 2004. And former England manager Graham Taylor will doubtless remember seeing Davide Gualtieri scoring after 8.3 seconds in a qualifier in 1993 against his England side, who recovered to win 7-1.
Star player Andy Selva (35, Hellas Verona, forward).
Group A Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland, Macedonia, Wales.
Group B Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Armenia, Malta.
Group C Germany, Sweden, Republic of Ireland, Austria, Faroe Islands, Kazakhstan.
Group D Netherlands, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Andorra.
Group E Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania, Cyprus, Iceland.
Group F Portugal, Russia, Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg.
Group G Greece, Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, Latvia, Liechtenstein.
Group H England, Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, San Marino.
Group I Spain, France, Belarus, Georgia, Finland.
Africa: Only five will qualify after the 10 group winners pair off into five play-offs
Concacaf: USA and Mexico are common qualifiers and are unlikely to miss 2014. They will be joined by one other nation, with the fourth best playing off against the Oceania qualifier.
Asia: Featuring Australia, South Africa, Japan, China and Arab nations. Top four from final groups qualify and fifth best plays off against a South American team.
Oceania: Zone winner will play the fourth best nation in the Concacaf region for a place in the finals.