Roy Hodgson has conceded that England might have to qualify for the World Cup finals next summer via the play-offs in November after the 1-1 draw with Montenegro on Tuesday night left them unbeaten but two points adrift of the Group H leaders.
It is expected that the play-offs, in which the eight second-placed teams with the best records from the nine qualifying groups play two-legged ties for the remaining four Uefa places, will be seeded. England should miss Croatia, Portugal and Greece, who are all possible second-place finishers. But France, who lost to Spain in Group I on Tuesday, look like they could be among the unseeded second-place sides and a possible opponent.
The general consensus among England’s players is that they must win the four remaining games in the autumn against Moldova, Ukraine (away), Montenegro and Poland in order to be sure of finishing top and securing automatic qualification.
Hodgson said: “Nobody wants to be in them [the play-offs]. But the fact is that in the World Cup qualifiers only one team qualifies. In the Euros two teams qualify but everyone knows that to qualify for the World Cup is that much harder.
“In every group there are at least two good teams. In fact, I would suggest there are more than two good teams in some of the groups. I will worry about the play-offs when the play-offs come around. At the moment I shall focus all my attention on first of all the summer... and if, as a result of our performances [in the autumn], we are second in our group then we will worry about the team we have to face in the play-offs.”
The Football Association will wait to see if Uefa’s report on the match mentions objects thrown at the players including Joe Hart in goal. “You get all sorts of things thrown at you,” said Hart. “It was a lighter. There was a marker pen, all sorts! Anything they have to hand. A big bottle of Evian! It [a toilet roll] pinged off my head and wrapped round my shoulder... But it’s not going to kill you, is it? It’s not ideal but that’s the beauty of football.”
There was also concern among the FA at the organised supporters’ chanting, led by a fan with a loudhailer who appeared to have the blessing of the Montenegro authorities. The chants were abusive and some of them made reference explicitly to the IRA.
Wayne Rooney believes England can win their last four games. “The group’s really in our hands, we play Montenegro back at Wembley and we’ve got games after that,” he told ITV. “It’s an interesting group but if we win our games we’re through.”
Rooney only spoke to ITV last week and he reacted sharply to the question that, having been sent off in Montenegro in 2011, he had something to prove on Tuesday. “Who to?” he said. “I don’t have to prove nothing to no one [sic]. I’ve been playing well for a while now. I’m enjoying my football and the whole thing was brought back to life by the media, which is understandable but it’s no problem for me to come back here and play.”