England's road to Rio is littered with hazards

Roy Hodgson is dogged by uncertainty in difficult campaign to reach Brazil, writes Sam Wallace
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The Independent Online

By the time, the Football Association reaches its 150th anniversary next May it will be on the brink of appointing yet another new chairman, an individual who will once again have to define the role of his organisation within the volatile, high-stakes world of modern English football. Of all the challenges that will face the new man, the one he does not need is doubts over the England team reaching the 2014 World Cup finals.

If Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Poland felt like it was a significant game in the life of Roy Hodgson's England, then the 1-1 draw in Warsaw means that the fixture away to Montenegro in March is even bigger. By then, the side from the tiny former Yugoslav republic will potentially be top of Group H, given that they have two qualifiers over a period in which England have just one.

Montenegro and England will both play San Marino before they face one other in Podgorica on 26 March. Montenegro play the Sammarinese next month and then Moldova, away, on 22 March. Providing both teams take maximum points from their games, England will find themselves two points behind Montenegro when they come to play them. It is hardly a disastrous state of affairs but it is enough to make the Montenegro match a turning point in the group.

England are still in a strong position but there is not much room for error in their six games remaining in this campaign, of which the away and home games against Montenegro and the matches against Ukraine (away) and Poland (home) are the most difficult. Under Fabio Capello, pictured, England drew three games on their way to qualifying top of their group for Euro 2012, and then they played eight games, rather than the 10 they will have in World Cup qualification.

The value of England's point in Poland will emerge when Ukraine go there in March and Montenegro play there in September. The Poles, also unbeaten, remain a force in the group. The problem is that, as Hodgson embarks on five months with no qualifying game, there are no cast-iron certainties.

"I still think you'll find that come November we'll be very much in the mix," Hodgson said. "If sometimes you've got to fight your way for something, rather than just sail through, that can help. If you look at the Euros, Russia and Holland sailed through but neither of them got out of their groups, though they'd qualified unbeaten.

"Italy went there with loads of problems, we were led to believe, not the least politically – and they ended up in the final. I'm anxious to make us play as well as we can play. But I'm equally anxious to make certain we've got those fighting qualities that England has always been famous for and we don't lose them."

It will be some comfort to Hodgson that England are still unbeaten in qualification and the last time they failed to reach a tournament – Euro 2008 – they had already lost by this stage. But as with the development of the team itself, it is uncertain. What no one wants to consider at the FA is the prospect of not qualifying for Brazil, a World Cup finals that has even greater significance because of the country hosting it.

"There's a lot of football still to be played and the bottom line is that this is not an easy group," Hodgson said. "It would've been lovely to have got off to a flyer and be sitting here with 12 points. But you don't get what you want by asking for it. You get what you want by playing for it."