England's fine balance under threat as Roy Hodgson faces reality

Manager goes into two crucial World Cup qualifiers with only one fit striker

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The Independent Football

Roy Hodgson did his best to back his chairman Greg Dyke's stark assessment of the dwindling future of the English footballer while at the same time trying to keep everyone calm about England's prospects of qualifying for next summer's World Cup finals. But then no one ever said the job of managing England was easy.

His opposite number, the Moldova manager Ion Caras, will have many problems of his own, not least the fact that he is in charge of the 123rd-ranked nation in the world, drawing on a population of 3.5 million. But even he might glance across to the home benches at Wembley tomorrow night and feel a twinge of sympathy for the harassed-looking man in the royal blue Marks & Spencer FA suit.

This is how it goes for the England manager. When the chairman of the Football Association decides it is time to address the realities of the falling number of English players available for the national team, someone still has to round up the survivors and try to steer them successfully through four World Cup qualifiers.

There was much to admire in Dyke's speech on Wednesday and it needed saying. But then take that message into the fraught environment of a squad preparing for two key qualifiers, without important players, and one can see how life can get complicated.

Steven Gerrard was asked whether he agreed with Dyke's assessment, in a radio interview, that "I don't think anyone realistically thinks we are going to win the World Cup in Brazil". Did he think the England team as weak as has been suggested, Gerrard was asked. "I don't," he said.

Nevertheless, the England captain was circumspect when it came to the team's chances in Brazil – provided they qualify. "Realistically, everyone in the room knows we're not going to be one of the bookies' favourites to win the World Cup," he said. "It doesn't mean we can't get there and have a successful tournament to make the country proud. But we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. Our priority is to get there first."

This is the problem with England: maintaining that fine balance between expressing the reality of the team's situation and looking for all the world like it is not even worth getting on the plane for the tournament in the first place. Go too far either way and one risks looking either deluded or having rendered the whole exercise pointless.

While Dyke attempts to see the bigger picture, however, Hodgson is dealing with the marginal gains of another difficult week. His key problem, not inconsiderable, is that he effectively has only one fit striker and that happens to be the man who has played just two seasons above the third tier of English football.

Step forward Rickie Lambert of Southampton, who will lead the line against Moldova. Of greater concern for England is that he will probably have to do the same against Ukraine in Kiev on Tuesday. It looks increasingly unlikely that Daniel Sturridge will recover from a thigh injury that has meant he has returned to Liverpool for treatment.

As for Jermain Defoe, he joined up carrying an injury which, allied with his lack of game time for Spurs this season, means he will not start either. Wayne Rooney is already out and Ashley Young, named among the strikers in this squad, does not fit the bill for a centre-forward. So Lambert it is, and the man who scored on his debut against Scotland last month is likely to start the definitive game on Tuesday too.

Hodgson took the unusual step of divulging his line-up, the kind of disclosure that one only expects before a friendly game. He has not picked Tom Cleverley, a favourite of his, preferring instead to reunite Gerrard and Frank Lampard as a pair in front of the defence with Jack Wilshere ahead of them and a forward line of Theo Walcott, Lambert and Danny Welbeck.

It should be enough to see off Moldova, outgunned 5-0 in Chisinau a year ago, but will it be good enough to get a result in Kiev, where England cannot afford to lose? Even with 201 caps between them and the old doubts about their compatibility, Gerrard and Lampard are still a comforting presence for an England manager with his back to a wall and qualification for a major tournament in the balance.

Today, Hodgson described the pair as "two unbelievably good players with great experience". Gerrard advanced the theory that the current formation suited the two of them playing better than the 4-4-2 that they were shoehorned into together in bygone years.

If ever there was an example of the limited options offered to an England manager then here it was: a striker with one cap and one full season's experience in the top flight and the reuniting of Gerrard and Lampard in the absence of any better, younger options. All the while, Hodgson was obliged to sound optimistic while defending Dyke's stance.

He suggested to the assembled press: "I don't think any of you will be racing out to place bets on England to win the World Cup either." Later he added: "We don't believe our chairman sees anything as a doomed mission. He also said in his speech how much he supports the team and hopes we get to Brazil and do well. I don't think he's giving up on the team. That would be harsh on him and even harsher on the team."

If Dyke's call to arms does end up saving the England team and the English footballer, history should at least remember Hodgson's stoic attempts to achieve that most difficult of extremes: staying positive in order to qualify for the World Cup finals while acknowledging that, yes, we are in a bit of a crisis.

Group H details

P/W/D/L/F/A/Pts

Montenegro 7/4/2/1/14/7/14

England 6/3/3/0/21/3/12

Ukraine 6/3/2/1/10/4/11

Poland 6/2/3/1/12/7/9

Moldova 7/1/2/4/4/11/5

San Marino 6/0/0/6/0/29/0

England results so far Moldova 0-5 England; England 1-1 Ukraine; England 5-0 San Marino; Poland 1-1 England; San Marino 0-8 England; Montenegro 1-1 England.

Remaining fixtures

Friday England v Moldova, Poland v Montenegro, Ukraine v San Marino

Tuesday San Marino v Poland, Ukraine v England

11 Oct England v Montenegro; Moldova v San Marino; Ukraine v Poland

15 Oct England v Poland, Montenegro v Moldova, San Marino v Ukraine

England/Moldova head-to-head

1 Sept 1996 World Cup qualifier, Chisinau Moldova 0 England 3 (Barmby, Gascoigne, Shearer)

10 Sept 1997 WCQ, Wembley England 4 (Scholes, Wright 2, Gascoigne) Moldova 0

7 Sept 2012 WCQ, Chisinau Moldova 0 England 5 (Lampard 2 (1 pen), Defoe, Milner, Baines)

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