Hodgson calls on England to show pedigree and win dogfight for finals

 

San Marino

He is the first England manager to have beaten Brazil in 23 years. On Friday night, his team won by the biggest winning margin of any England side for more than 25 years. He has lost just one of his 14 games in charge discounting penalty shoot-outs. Yet on Tuesday night in Podgorica, the mood around Roy Hodgson's England team will be defined for the next seven months.

Beat Montenegro, or even avoid defeat, and England will look like they are set fair to win Group H and proceed to the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014. But lose and suddenly the perspective changes radically. Montenegro were the team whom England failed to beat twice in qualifying for Euro 2012 under Fabio Capello, and currently lead the group by two points.

As he reflected on his team's progress at the San Marino national stadium in Serravalle, Hodgson was adamant that the reckoning for the campaign will come in October when the team play their final two qualification games.

Of their last four games after Tuesday, three of them, against Moldova, Montenegro and Poland, are at home, with only Ukraine in September away. Yet if England lose to Montenegro they could win every one of those last four and still not finish top of the group.

"We knew them [Montenegro] from the last qualifying campaign," Hodgson said. "Ukraine, we knew them from the Euros and Poland... we always knew this was going to be a bit of a dogfight.

"Only time will tell that [if England cannot lose to Montenegro]. If we lose it and then don't get the points in the next four games then fine, it was the game we couldn't afford to lose. We are not going there to lose, we are going there to win and if Montenegro want the three points they will hopefully at least have to play very well."

After England, Montenegro play Ukraine at home, Poland and England away and then Moldova at home on 15 October. England finish that night with Poland at home.

"As far as I am concerned, I am eyeing the last game in October," Hodgson said. "I think with this group of players and all the quality we have, not only in the team but in the squad, I still think come the end of October we are going to be right up there."

Even so, there is not that much room for manoeuvre. By way of comparison, Germany and Holland are both five points clear at the top of their groups.

In Group F, Capello's Russia are four points clear of second-placed Israel having played one fewer game after their match against Northern Ireland on Friday was snowed off.

England's section is certainly turning into a dogfight, but the scrap will get considerably harder if England do not get three points on Tuesday. When the players train at the City stadium in Podgorica this evening they will find themselves in familiar surroundings, It was here that they conceded a late equaliser in October 2011 after Wayne Rooney was sent off amid a feverish atmosphere. At the end of the game the pitch was invaded in old-school fashion by the locals.

Hodgson has to pick a team that can deal with that pressure again. There should be more than enough experience in this England team, one of the oldest among Europe's big guns, but that has not always been a guarantee against calamity.

The manager is trying to play down the game's significance. He was desperate not to discuss Rooney at all after the San Marino game, such a touchy subject is the player and his club manager Sir Alex Ferguson's relationship with the Football Association.

All that Hodgson would say was that he had jokingly offered Rooney the penalty-taking responsibilities at half-time on Friday but Rooney had insisted on deferring to Frank Lampard as per their previous agreement.

Will Tuesday be Hodgson's biggest test so far as England manager? "The biggest test was quite frankly France in the opening game of the Euros," he said. "After two or three weeks working with the team in the Ukraine in the 35-degree heat, that game was the biggest test that I have faced so far.

"If you are the manager of any team worthy of the name, not least the England team, or a player, the pressure is always on you.

"You are there to be judged and I don't think the pressure necessarily goes up just because the game takes on more importance.

"I don't feel I am under more pressure for the Montenegro game than the San Marino game. I felt under pressure against San Marino. If we had played badly and not got a good result I would have been very sad about it."

At times it seems that even Hodgson, with his 37 years in management, finds it hard to believe the level of scrutiny under which the England team is placed. It would be enough to shock anyone, but it is about to be taken up yet another notch come Tuesday.

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