England v Switzerland: Euro 2016 qualifying progress may be dull but Hodgson is content

NOTWITHSTANDING Holland’s spectacular unravelling in Group A, the bloated qualifying format for Euro 2016 has proved every bit as grimly uninspiring as first feared.

Manager Roy Hodgson was asked yesterday if anything was troubling him about England at the moment and his answer was an unequivocal nothing (Picture: John Walton/PA).
Manager Roy Hodgson was asked yesterday if anything was troubling him about England at the moment and his answer was an unequivocal nothing (Picture: John Walton/PA).

Fans of Michel Platini’s brainwave to allow 24 teams to compete in next summer’s finals may point to the romance of Iceland qualifying or Wales being on the verge of making history.

In a world where mediocrity is rewarded, that is fair enough.

But this is the European Championships, a tournament that until the current incarnation was a true test of a team’s mettle in both qualifying and once the ‘real’ action got under way every four summers.

Where a World Cup could take some time to get going due to a proliferation of weaker nations, any side wanting to be successful at the Euros could not afford a slow start.

Now, though, the top two in each group going through as the third-placed team heads into a play-off makes it tough for any of the European superpowers to miss out.

Even Holland, fourth right now with two games to play, could still sneak into November’s deciders by pipping Turkey to third place.

No longer does a team have to be at or near its best for the best part of two years to be crowned champions of the continent.

Of course, if Wales do end a 58-year wait to play again in a major tournament, few in the Valleys will care how Chris Coleman’s side did so.

But, surely, pipping Belgium to top spot in Group B would make the achievement much more impressive. Ditto Iceland, if they can hold off Czech Republic to claim top spot in their own group.

From an England perspective, this qualifying campaign has been as dull as any that this correspondent can recall.

A nervy draw in the manner of the Istanbul stalemate that took Sven Goran Eriksson’s side to Euro 2004 was never going to be needed. Nor was a 4-1 triumph similar to the one in old Yugoslavia that guaranteed qualification in such spectacular fashion 16 years earlier.

Instead, a group that seemed a breeze on paper has proved to be exactly that with the identity of the winners decided as early as the first fixture.

That was when Roy Hodgson’s men took an initial step towards bouncing back from a truly woeful World Cup by beating Switzerland in Basel.

Another three points tonight against the Swiss and that long promised top spot will have been sealed, leaving next month’s double header against Estonia and Lithuania as little more than opportunities for Hodgson to experiment.

Still, a team can only beat whatever opposition is put in front of it and, from that perspective, the Three Lions’ performance in Group E has left their manager in contented mood ahead of next summer’s tournament.

“Nothing,” replied Hodgson yesterday when asked what, if anything, was troubling him about England at the moment.

“I am optimistic with the talent pool and for the future, that these players will develop and get better and that the quality of games we will have after qualifying will stretch the players, test them out more.

“But, on that point, we are playing against the world’s best goalkeepers in the Premier League every week. You can find a Lloris, de Gea, Courtois in the league every week.

“It is not as simple as saying we must improve one area, to ensure that everything is hunky dory.

“We are a young team, a relatively inexperienced team. There is no shortcut. No amount of words or coaching sessions will compensate for getting the experience.

“But Wayne Rooney didn’t have a lot of experience earlier in his career, and he came through a finals (Euro 2004). We are happy with what has gone on, but we are not screaming from the rooftops.

“We have come a long way. We have more steps to take.”

Qualification now assured, England have lined up a string of prestigious friendlies.

These include a trip to Alicante to face Spain on November 13, four days before France are due at Wembley.

Germany are lined up for next March, while the national team could also meet Holland in a friendly ahead of Euro 2016.

Hodgson, who is without Michael Carrick tonight following his withdrawal through a calf injury that makes the midfielder a doubt for Manchester United’s clash with Liverpool this weekend, added: “I was hopeful and optimistic before the World Cup and that didn’t go well for us.

“I don’t see any reason for pessimism, though, or to be negative in any way and pour cold water on anything.

“I am not saying we are the finished article and potential champions. I am saying we are moving in the right direction and we are hoping our work pays off. We will find out in June. The talking before then won’t help unless we can get on that field and outplay the opposition.”