Get to the big show

The World Cup may still feel a long way away but England must perform now, writes Adam Bate.

Last Updated: 06/09/13 at 11:22

This is a big week for English football. And yet, you wouldn't know it. For many football fans, this is merely a momentum-killing break just as the Premier League narratives were taking shape; an unwelcome lull after the drama of the transfer window. World Cup qualification is on the line but the lack of immediacy of next summer's tournament means that the consequences can still feel remote.

But real those consequences are. Just as some revelled in Steve McClaren's dismay as the rain came down in 2007 only to feel the pain once Euro 2008 approached, we just don't fully appreciate it yet. And while the hipsters may relish an England-free tournament, there will be something missing without the presence of the Three Lions in Brazil... At least for the first two weeks.

Brazil 2014 will be spectacular. Of course, there will be the inevitable complaints about the organisation of the tournament and scare stories about crime on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Sky Sports correspondent Orla Chennaoui will doubtless be dispatched to highlight the disparity of poverty and wealth in Brazilian society.

But there will also be those extraordinary moments that unite a planet. The Champions League has long since supplanted this quadrennial shindig at the apex of world football as the highest standard of competition. However, national team managers know that they hold the ace card that even the Fergusons, Mourinhos and Guardiolas cannot play. They offer the hope of a World Cup win. Immortality that transcends the sport. The Maracana will have its heroes next summer.

No mistakes

Like Mike Bassett, the fictional boss from the 2001 film who led them through to the finals in Brazil, England just need to get there. Unlike Bassett, who had to rely on Luxembourg beating Turkey, Roy Hodgson could do without a favour from San Marino against Ukraine in order to achieve it. That means no mistakes this week.

A five-goal triumph in Chisinau this time last year suggests victory over Moldova on Friday evening should be a formality. It is the draw required in Ukraine to ensure England's destiny remains their own to decide that could prove rather trickier. A solitary point would be enough to know that home wins would see the job completed. Defeat would effectively leave England playing for second place.

Wayne Rooney and Roy Hodgson celebrate beating Ukraine at Euro 2012

At least Hodgson has form in Ukraine. England's 1-0 win over the co-hosts at Euro 2012 remains arguably his best result in charge. Wayne Rooney got the goal that day but Hodgson must do without his star forward on Tuesday as he is unavailable through injury. So are Glen Johnson and Phil Jones, while Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge are carrying knocks. It's not ideal preparation.

As a result, the England boss has sprinkled his squad with young talent - Raheem Sterling is involved, while Andros Townsend and Ross Barkley have received the call for the first time. But Hodgson must rely on familiar figures to stand up to the challenge in Ukraine. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard survive from that disappointment against Croatia six years ago and the responsibility will fall on Gerrard again to lead the team through.

Questions

Elsewhere, there are more questions than answers. Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill form a solid if unspectacular centre-back pairing - a functional duo where England could once boast genuine word-class performers. Meanwhile, the presence of the attack-minded but positionally vulnerable Kyle Walker on the right means the safer option of Ashley Cole will surely be preferred to Leighton Baines on the left.

Hodgson has favoured Tom Cleverley in the No.10 role but his presence alongside goal-shy Manchester United colleague Danny Welbeck in the advanced positions can put pressure elsewhere. England don't have a Robin van Persie. They don't even have a Rooney, so it will be the likes of Sturridge, Jermain Defoe and Rickie Lambert expected to fire the Three Lions to top spot.

Will it be enough? Let's hope so or the whole cycle of debate will wheel round again amid talk of a revolution unhelpfully conducted against the backdrop of Greg Dyke's fanciful demands for World Cup glory in 2022. And while some would welcome that debate, it would come at the expense of a World Cup party in Brazil next summer. At least for the first two weeks...

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