Roy Hodgson would resent the suggestion that he had never faced a game of the magnitude of Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier in Kiev. He would point to Switzerland’s successful run to the 1994 World Cup finals which he masterminded; his Internazionale team reaching the two-legged 1997 Uefa Cup final and another appearance in the final of that same competition 13 years later with Fulham – both of which ended in defeat.
He might even tell you about the times he was Halmstads manager right at the start of his career when he guided a small club to the league title in Sweden and when, if things had turned out differently, he might no longer have been able to make a living out of professional football.
But even after taking an England team to the European Championship last summer, with the benefit of just a few weeks in charge, nothing quite compares to a World Cup qualifier in a hostile stadium with prospect of failure ever-present. If England lose tonight to Ukraine they may still qualify for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil next summer but it might be via the two-legged play-offs in November. It might be not at all.
In that respect there are echoes of Rome in October 1997 when a 0-0 draw with Italy saw England safely through to the 1998 World Cup finals. On that occasion Hodgson made an appearance at Glenn Hoddle’s pre-match press conference and acted as interpreter for the Italian reporters. In 2003 England went to Istanbul to get a 0-0 draw that saw them through to the European Championship the following summer, in the heart of the storm over Rio Ferdinand’s missed drugs test.
And then of course there was Croatia at Wembley in November 2007 when, having been given a reprieve in their faltering qualification campaign by Israel’s victory over Russia, Steve McClaren’s side conspired to lose 3-2. That is a scar that this generation of players still carry and the memory of it has lurked around the edges of this campaign, dogged as it has been by the kind of injuries to key players that McClaren also had to bear.
A draw would suit Ukraine, the same result they got at Wembley, which would put them in pole position for second place and a spot in the play-offs. But they are a bold team and as Hodgson himself admitted they will try to blow their visitors away in the early stages. There will be times, Hodgson said, when England will be gravely tested and as a side that so far has only recorded victories in qualification against Moldova and San Marino, he had to agree that the pressure is on.
“Of course, we are getting closer to the situation where we are either going to achieve our goals and qualify for the World Cup or we are going to fail. Of course that is pressure, that is part and parcel of the business. You cannot get away from that, but discussing it and admitting it, what does that do?
“What would you like me to say in answer to that question? ‘I don’t feel any pressure, I couldn’t care less’. Of course, you don’t expect me to say that. ‘I can’t sleep at night’? ‘I can’t sleep a wink’? ‘I’m frightened to death that we are going to lose’? Do you want me to say that?”
It should be said that Hodgson mentioned all that with a smile on his face, not like a man describing his own anxieties. “The only thing you can hope is that when you put the team out on the field before the referee blows his whistle you’re confident in your own mind that they feel they can do the job: that they’re physically and mentally prepared in their own minds to do it. Then we’re talking human beings, not robots. We don’t play with Xs and Os, we play with human beings.”
It is at times like these, when the stakes are high, that Hodgson’s capacity to talk through his own concerns leads to something that he might, in other circumstances, consider prudent to keep to himself.
“At the moment we’re all playing a mental game,” he said. “We’re envisaging a game and situations, envisaging what can and may happen and how we’re going to deal with it. But you don’t know. We might kick off and from the very first kick of the game Joe Hart lets the ball through his legs, or their goalkeeper does the same and we’re one down or one up. Or the referee might give a penalty.”
Hart letting the ball through his legs is exactly what England do not need, especially given the scrutiny on the goalkeeper of late after his very patchy start to the Premier League season. There is no doubt that Hodgson was simply trying to make a wider point about the capriciousness of football but he inadvertently hit upon one of the deep-seated fears that currently exists about such a key player.
There does not seem any doubt now that Hodgson will select James Milner in the place of the suspended Danny Welbeck. He confirmed that there will be only one change, that enforced one, from the team that beat Moldova 4-0 on Friday night and in a subsequent extensive musing about the collective pace of the team he intends to pick tonight he suggested that it would be “less so” against Ukraine. Not a thought that would have entered his head had he been inclined to select Ashley Young or Andros Townsend.
This will also be a night for the experienced players to see their manager through. He talked about the presence of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole in the side, with 305 caps between them, as a “God-send”. Gerrard himself picked out the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich 12 years ago as the day that he came of age in international football and challenged some of his younger team-mates to make Kiev in 2013 a similar epoch in their careers.
It would never have come to this if England had not thrown away points so sloppily at home to Ukraine and away in Montenegro and Poland. But it has and not for the first time they face a demanding qualifying game away from home without Wayne Rooney and also Daniel Sturridge, the man whom Hodgson would liked to have replaced him. If Hodgson is unconvinced this is the biggest game of his management career he need only witness the reaction if England lose.
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Victory would mean qualification remains in their hands and would be assured with two wins in their final matches. They could even afford a home draw against Montenegro or Poland and still top the group.
A stalemate would mean England have a one-point lead over Ukraine and Montenegro going into the final two matches. With Ukraine at home against San Marino and Poland, it’s likely England would need to win both their matches.
Ukraine would move to the head of the group by two points, making automatic qualification for England unlikely. A fight for second place with Poland and Montenegro for a play-off spot would then ensue.
11 October: Ukraine v Poland, England v Montenegro
15 October: Ukraine v San Marino, England v Poland, Montenegro v Moldova