Michael Carrick can be midfield key to England mastery
Roy Hodgson faces tricky choices for Tuesday's vital game against Ukraine
Now for the tricky part. Completing four victories over Moldova and San Marino and scoring 22 times in the process without conceding has given England a useful goal difference, but ever since they scrambled a late draw against Ukraine at Wembley last September, Tuesday's return match in Kiev has looked like the key game in the group.
To go there as group leaders was better than could have been expected when England's 10 men trailed to Yevhen Konoplyanka's goal with three minutes to play a year ago. Frank Lampard equalised from a penalty won by the substitute Danny Welbeck, and the subsequent bonus was that in a group of four contenders, the other three have all dropped points as well.
So England fly to Kiev this afternoon as the only unbeaten side, a record they must nevertheless preserve on Tuesday in order to go into the final two games, at home to Montenegro and then Poland, as favourites for the only automatic place at the finals.
It is the sort of situation in which a draw would feel like a victory, and with a squad weakened by the absence of up to half-a-dozen players (Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Glen Johnson, Phil Jones Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Daniel Sturridge), the temptation is to play for one. Roy Hodgson however, insists that it is not England's way.
"We don't really do that," he said. "We try very hard, as naïve and simplistic as it sounds, to make certain our defending is spot on against whatever team we play, whether that is Brazil in the Maracana or Moldova or San Marino.
"Then when we get the ball we try to attack them. Our style of play, which is well ingrained with the players, is based on both attacking and defending, and we know we have to do both extremely well."
Ukraine must still be kicking themselves for having managed nothing better than a goalless draw in Moldova, then suffering a home defeat by Montenegro. "They need to win," Hodgson said with justification, adding: "There is no guarantee a draw will be that suitable for them because we have two home games left, and if we win them it is out of their hands.
"They have to win, and they are not going to win by putting eight players behind the ball and wasting time when the ball goes out of play. They will do it by attacking us."
Ukraine did just that in the European Championship group match in Donetsk 15 months ago, and should have been in front before Rooney scored against the run of play just after half-time. England will need to be bolder this time, although Hodgson will consider two changes, essentially more defensive, to Friday's team.
With Welbeck suspended, he will choose between Ashley Young and James Milner on the left, the strong implication of having brought Milner on as substitute against Moldova being that he will get the nod. The Manchester City player missed a glorious chance to improve his record of one goal in 40 games but Hodgson, while admitting he is not as exciting as some wingers, admires his chugging up and down the line more than many people do.
Then he must decide whether to bring back Michael Carrick alongside Gerrard, at the expense of either Lampard, who is due to receive his 100th cap, or Jack Wilshere. That one is trickier, and a dilemma not faced before, since it is the first time that all four have ever been available at the same time. It means that Tom Cleverley, a Hodgson favourite until last week, is suddenly fifth choice in a midfield as well stocked with options as the attack is starved of them.
Gerrard, Lampard and Wilshere worked well together as a tight central trio on Friday, interchanging smoothly, although the captain was generally the deepest of them and Wilshere the furthest forward. Even against better opposition than Moldova could provide, the fluidity of that system works better than in the days of Sven Goran Eriksson's 4-4-2 and endless debate about whether Gerrard and Lampard could combine effectively in the middle.
Barring another red mist and red card, such as Gerrard suffered against Ukraine at Wembley, the question is more likely to be whether it is Lampard who is on the pitch. Given Carrick's qualities of ball retention, it may be that the Chelsea midfielder has to wait on 99 for a late substitute's appearance.
By that stage Hodgson and everyone else will have a better idea of whether next summer is going to bring a final hurrah for the old guard in Brazil or a couple of friendlies for the new generation.
Ukraine v England is on ITV1 on Tuesday, kick-off 7.45pm
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