Why is England coach Roy Hodgson keeping faith with England’s veteran players like Frank Lampard despite the disappointment of Euro 2012? Richard Sutcliffe reports.
ON paper, there are easier international opponents to kick off a World Cup qualifying campaign against than Moldova. But not many.
Ranked 141st in the world, the Moldovans are deemed by FIFA to be superior to only a handful of countries in Europe after winning just five out of 42 games since 2008.
That they are not expected to finish bottom of Group H shows a lot about the challenge – for want of a better word – facing Roy Hodgson’s men in the quest to book a place at the 2014 World Cup finals.
A Ukrainian outfit who flopped dismally on home soil during Euro 2012 are likely to pose the sternest test, though Montenegro may have something to say about that after claiming two draws against Fabio Capello’s England en route to finishing second in an eight-game group that the Three Lions won by six points.
Even so, it is difficult to envisage anything but a comfortable passage to Brazil in two years’ time for Hodgson and his men. Only then will things become interesting due to various factors starting to conspire against England.
Chief among these will be how important home advantage has been when the World Cup has been staged in South America on the previous five occasions with Uruguay (twice), Brazil (twice) and Argentina triumphing.
It is a record that suggests even Europe’s finest, Spain, will face an uphill task to retain their title.
The sheer size of Brazil and the contrasting conditions that different areas of the country can bring will also be big headaches for Hodgson.
Perhaps his biggest challenge, however, will be the make-up of his team with the one certainty about qualifying Group H – other than that San Marino, ranked even lower than Moldova in joint last place with a coefficient points total of precisely zero, will finish bottom – is that England’s starting XI is going to have to evolve over the next couple of years.
Frank Lampard, for instance, will be 36 come 2014 and Steven Gerrard 34. Both are worth a place in the team that faces both Moldova tonight and Ukraine on Tuesday. Gerrard, in fact, will be charged with snuffing out the threat of Moldova’s best midfielder, Serghei Covalciuc, who during six years with Spartak Moscow helped the Russian club to both domestic success and also into the Champions League.
But it is surely pushing things to suggest the same will be the case come the next World Cup.
Ditto Ashley Cole, who is ruled out tonight through injury, and John Terry with the Chelsea duo both due to pass their 33rd birthday in the months before the footballing world decamps to Brazil for five weeks.
Maybe a couple or even three of those long-serving internationals will make Hodgson’s final 23-man squad. But in the heat of South America, it is difficult to envisage any of them managing, say, five draining games in three weeks if England were to make their customary quarter-final appearance.
It is why the 10-game qualifying campaign that gets under way in Chisinau tonight is going to be so important for those considered to be in with a chance of becoming the next ‘big thing’.
Jack Wilshere looked capable of making the breakthrough a little over a year ago but has since seen his career put on hold by injury.
Just when he will return to the Arsenal midfield remains unclear, as is how much damage more than 12 months out of action will have done to his game.
But Wilshere is still someone who surely must cause Hodgson a ripple of excitement whenever he contemplates the player’s return to an England shirt.
As for the rest, they may have an abundance of potential. But the key for England is whether that promise can be fulfilled in time to be pivotal figures in Brazil.
Ryan Bertrand, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge all fall into this category and need a big couple of years.
As, it should be said, does Phil Jones, who despite being continually touted as the next big hope for English football has yet to convince at the top level in either a Manchester United or England shirt.
All may or may not mature into fine internationals but at this very moment in time they are nowhere near being ready to depose the old guard, which is why Hodgson has little alternative but to stick with Lampard, Gerrard, Terry et al at least for the qualifiers taking place before the end of 2012.
This is why the impressive return of Michael Carrick, at 31 just a year younger than the England captain, against Italy last month was so warmly received.
If he gets the nod against Moldova, it will represent only his sixth competitive appearance for his country and the first meaningful one since 2006.
Capello is the main reason for that. But for such a seasoned Premier League campaigner to be so relatively inexperienced on the international stage suggests that Hodgson sticking with Gerrard and co for now is a wise move. Let us face it, Andre Villas-Boas’s policy of changing things too quickly at Chelsea hardly ended well for the Portuguese manager.
No, Hodgson has got it right in sticking with the old guard – at least until worthy replacements are in place and comfortable on the biggest stage of all.
In the meantime, England can earn the points that will surely be enough to book a fifth successive appearance at a World Cup finals – starting tonight with victory over a country ranked so low by FIFA that only Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Andorra and San Marino sit lower in the FIFA rankings.