Roy Hodgson not concerned by losing top spot in World Cup qualifying group


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The Independent Football

England boss Roy Hodgson insists he has plenty of reasons to be cheerful even though his side enter their winter hibernation outside an automatic World Cup qualifying slot.

Montenegro's three-goal win over San Marino in Podgorica last night allowed Branko Brnovic's men to go back to the top of Group H with 10 points from their four games, two ahead of England.

It was hardly an unexpected result given San Marino's appalling record of just one win since they became a member of Fifa in 1990.

However, it does underline just what a big night it will be when England tackle Montenegro on March 26 in the first of two meetings which could well determine who makes it straight through to Brazil 2014, and who has to go through the hazardous play-off route.

Certainly as he left Stockholm last night, Hodgson did not give the impression of someone left devastated by his team being knocked off top spot.

He was far more interested in the many plusses he had spotted in last night's 4-2 defeat.

"We expected Montenegro to win," he said. "Quite frankly, it is not important who is top and who is second at this stage. It will be important in October next year.

"We still have six matches to play.

"This game gives me more cause for optimism than pessimism.

"We wanted to give ourselves a better idea of the players we can count on and the ones who can help us get there."

Of his six debutants, Hodgson had most reason to be pleased with Raheem Sterling and Steven Caulker.

Sterling is not the biggest and Sweden looked as though they were trying to intimate him with a couple of robust early challengers.

The 17-year-old showed impressive bravery to bounce back and courage to demand the ball on a regular basis, and ran at the home defence in the same refreshing manner he has done in the Premier League this term.

Caulker partnered Gary Cahill in what, until his exit 17 minutes from time, was a solid defensive display in which Zlatan Ibrahimovic was largely becalmed.

In addition, the Tottenham man became the first England player to score on his debut since David Nugent against Andorra in Barcelona over five years ago.

But perhaps most pleasing of all was the return of Jack Wilshere after a 17-month absence.

The 20-year-old is clearly still rusty.

However, just having him around the same squad as Steven Gerrard could be a massive bonus next year, when the pair are expected to become midfield partners in the drive towards Brazil 2014.

"If we are going to lose a game it is better to do it like this, with so many people gaining experience and feeling their way," said Hodgson.

"It is good to see Jack Wilshere looking very assured back in an England shirt and the biggest was to see Steven Gerrard in such magnificent form.

"Don't forget, this was Sweden's best team.

"For long periods we didn't just match them, we had the better of the game and I am pretty sure with the players we have at home, who will be coming back into the reckoning, we will be looking to qualify."

Of course, the major talking point was not Hodgson's optimism, nor indeed any concern about the form of keeper Joe Hart, who again was some way below his best.

All anyone leaving the Friends Arena around midnight really wanted to discuss was Ibrahimovic's overhead kick, the coup-de-grace on the first four-goal haul anyone has achieved against England.

"Joe was unlucky because the ball pitched up that meant he didn't get the purchase on his header," said Hodgson.

"But perhaps I shouldn't begrudge Ibrahimovic that fantastic goal. It was a work of art."