Another qualifying series comes to an end, and another coach finds his job under threat. To an outsider it looks as though Bernd Stange has done a decent job as coach of Belarus, but promising results towards the end of Euro 2008 qualifying seem to have raised expectations to unrealistic levels.
Having lost, freakishly, to Luxembourg in those qualifiers, Belarus recovered to win away in Albania and beat Holland at home. Few expected them to seriously challenge for World Cup qualification, but it seems there was a hope that they would at least upset Croatia, Ukraine, perhaps even England.
Stange, a former coach of East Germany who coached Iraq for two years on the grounds that "I needed a job and they offered me one", is dismissive of the criticism. "Even before the qualifying round began we said that the level of football in the country is not high enough for the World Cup," he said. "In the end that's proved to be right."
The 61-year-old is too astute a reader of political trends not to realise that the tide is turning against him. After a spell coaching in Australia, he said that his dream was to retire with his wife to Perth, and it seems only a matter of time before he is on the phone to Western Australian estate agents.
And yet there have been high points about this campaign. Belarus were emphatic 5-1 winners in Kazakhstan, and they forced a goalless draw against Ukraine in Minsk last month, a result that handed the initiative in the battle for a play-off spot back to Croatia.
Even in Zagreb four days before that game, Belarus overcame a timid first half to attack with some verve after the break, and were perhaps a touch unfortunate not to sneak an equaliser in a game that they ultimately lost 1-0. "We need to improve our finishing," said Stange. "The fans love the style of our team, but now we need results, and that's why we have to solve those problems with finishing."
The absence of Alexander Hleb for much of the past year – since leaving Arsenal in summer 2008, injury has restricted him to just 12 league starts – only made Stange's task harder. "If we'd had four Hlebs we might have made it to the World Cup," he said. Most of the time they have not even had one, unless you count Alexander's less talented younger brother Vyachelsav, who plays in China with Shanghai Shenhua.
After starting the season brightly following his move from Barcelona to Stuttgart, Hleb will be missing again on Wednesday. "They say there is nobody who is irreplaceable," said the midfielder Timofei Kalachev, "but for the Belarus national team Hleb means a lot. There are only a few players of such a level, and in our team almost nobody like him."
It is not as though there is a host of great talents Stange is overlooking. The Under-21s reached the finals of the European Championships in Sweden earlier this year, which suggests there is promise for the future, but Stange has been reluctant to expose too many of those players too soon.
There were mumblings about the 21-year-old central defender Yegor Filipenko, who has come into the Spartak Moscow side recently because of an injury to Austria international Martin Stranzl, but he has been far from consistent. Stange said: "Of course he is a candidate, but he didn't play for more than half a year and has now played a few matches for Spartak and a couple for the Under-21 team, but I don't think that's a reason to call him back to the national team."
For Belarus, Wednesday's game at Wembley is about salvaging pride. "Anything but a drubbing will be good for us," said the midfielder Alexander Kulchy. "I think the main thing is to look decent as the away side against England." But looking decent may not be enough to keep Stange in the job.Reuse content