San Marino v England: Steven Gerrard eyes early goal to release pressure
After injury withdrawals and the Ferdinand affair, even facing San Marino is not without pitfalls
As befits a man as diplomatic as Roy Hodgson, he gave the usual nod to the right of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino – to give tomorrow night's opposition their full name – to play international football. They were, Hodgson said, "part of the Uefa and Fifa family" and it was not the job of bigger nations to decide who should play in World Cup qualification.
Indeed, the England manager even went as far as to say that it would require the England team to be at their very best in the 7,000-capacity Serravalle Stadium to win a World Cup qualifier against the country ranked joint last of Fifa's 207 recognised nations. San Marino's all-time record of 111 defeats, three draws and one solitary win in 23 years would suggest that the reality is otherwise.
It was Hodgson's captain Steven Gerrard who put a more realistic aspect on the debate when he said that unless England won by four or five goals then questions would be asked. He is right. The students, barmen and shopkeepers who make up San Marino's national team, not forgetting the accountant, the fitness centre owner, the business consultant and the three professional footballers should, by any stretch of the imagination, prove no threat at all.
This being England, however, means that there is no such thing as a trouble-free international break. In an ideal world all would be serene in the Most Serene Republic, but, as Gerrard put it, "there's always an issue or an agenda around the games" and Rio Ferdinand's decision to fly to Qatar, having pulled out of the squad citing fitness concerns, was yesterday's problem du jour.
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Gerrard knows that these kind of opponents present problems of their own. He was in the England team that reached half-time of a Euro 2008 qualifier against Andorra in March 2007 in Barcelona with the score at 0-0 and the travelling support calling for the sacking of Steve McClaren. They eventually got their wish eight months later, but mercifully for England that night, Gerrard scored twice and the side prevailed 3-0.
At Wembley in October, it took England 35 minutes to break through the resistance of San Marino, a microstate that has a population of 31,000 – roughly equivalent to the population of the Liverpool district of Huyton, where Gerrard grew up. Although one suspects that if Huyton did declare itself independent and raise a team, it would have a better side than San Marino.
During those edgy 35 minutes at Wembley before Wayne Rooney's penalty set the team on the way to a 5-0 victory, the biggest concern was the clumsy nature of San Marino's defending. Theo Walcott was obliged to spend a night in hospital after a collision with the goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini, who was reckless in coming out to close down the ball and later gave away the penalty from which England scored.
It was a question of "attack versus defence" Gerrard said, with the onus all upon England to make the running. "The pressure's all on us," he said. "It's about us getting that breakthrough as early as we can. They're happy to stop us and keep the scoreline down. They'll slow the game down, give stupid fouls, get on to the referee, do anything they can to stop us scoring. If we don't win the game by more than four goals, we'll get it [criticism] anyway.
"We have the majority of the ball. Their tactics are to frustrate and slow it down. Even at Wembley we had possession and were creating chances, but we didn't have the first goal until the half-hour mark. The pressure was becoming more intense. In an ideal scenario, we'd score earlier and it would be released."
Hodgson has tried desperately to diffuse the Ferdinand situation by giving the appearance of a man who does not care that a player who would be of great use tomorrow night has decided his time is better spent flying seven and a half hours to the Middle East to be a TV pundit. In fairness to the England manager, once Ferdinand withdrew on Monday he had little control over what he did next and will have to draw his own conclusions about the player's commitment.
Without the Manchester United player, as well as the two other defensive withdrawals, Michael Dawson and Gary Cahill, the England manager has little option but to pick Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling as his two most experienced centre-backs. It would appear Leighton Baines will take over duties at left-back from Ashley Cole, who is a booking away from a one-match ban.
In midfield, Gerrard is expected to start alongside Michael Carrick, who Hodgson said he was not considering as an emergency centre-half in spite of the lack of experience in his two back-ups for that position, Steven Caulker and the uncapped Steven Taylor. Lescott is also one booking away from missing the high-stakes qualifier against Montenegro on Tuesday but Hodgson said he could not allow that to cloud his thinking.
In fact, the England manager was remarkably relaxed about his approach, observing that "formations are always overly exaggerated" and giving the impression that he expects the superior quality of his players to be telling. "There are games when you go in as the underdog and that releases the pressure valve," he said. "In others there's no pressure valve to be released because everyone expects you to win the game handsomely. They're the harder games to play, in some respect. San Marino will be like that."
As ever with England, even games against opposition as trifling as San Marino are approached with trepidation and over-stated notions of "respect". But given the team's history for chaos, as the Ferdinand issue only served to reinforce, those involved tend not to take anything for granted.
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