Don't book Brazil flight just yet

Our Andy Schooler previews Friday's World Cup qualifiers and feels England's progress to the finals is far from assured.

Last Updated: 12/10/13 at 11:08 Post Comment

Sturridge and Rooney have played just 30 minutes together

Sturridge and Rooney have played just 30 minutes together

The equation for England is simple: beat Montenegro on Friday and Poland next Tuesday and their flight to the World Cup in Brazil will be booked.

Despite both games being at Wembley, one suspects it may actually be a tad tougher to carry out the plan.

By any stretch of the imagination, this isn't a good England team; it's probably one of the weakest for a long time.

If you disagree, fine, but the fact of the matter is that England have only beaten perennial whipping boys Moldova and San Marino so far in this group, which looked one of the easiest to negotiate when it was drawn a couple of years ago.

At that point, many would have thought England might have actually already qualified by this stage. Instead they are not even guaranteed a play-off spot and are just one of four teams who could still finish top.

The good news for Roy Hodgson is that his team, a functional one lacking in flair, have been hard to beat - he's suffered just one defeat during his time in charge. Less good is that all four matches they've played that really matter in this group so far have been drawn.

Well, draws won't do any more and another slip is likely to see England have to settle for the play-offs or even miss out altogether. The latter would have serious ramifications but really isn't beyond the realms of possibility.

England can currently be backed at 11/2 not to qualify for the World Cup which looks quite generous to me.

But with the likely fall-back of a play-off, in which they would almost certainly be seeded, a better bet at this stage is to back Ukraine to win the group at 5/2.

Sitting second, a point behind England, they should be expected to keep the pressure on by beating Poland at home on Friday. Three points away to San Marino next week should be considered a given. If they do that, England will need to win both games and I'm not convinced they will.

Before even considering Poland next week, Montenegro must be overcome and while they are not powerhouses off the international game, England, more than most, should know all about their ability.

The reverse fixture was drawn 1-1, while in Euro 2012 qualifying the sides played out two more draws, including a goalless one at Wembley.

They have real quality up front in Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic and Manchester City's Stevan Jovetic. Admittedly neither is 100 per cent fit right now but they should still be able to trouble England as their side look to stretch an impressive run of results which has brought just a single defeat in 12 games.

Remember also that the Montenegrins still have strong hopes of making their first World Cup appearance so there will be no chance of them lying down which could be the case when Poland arrive next week.

Yes, England still have better quality throughout their team but Hodgson does have some issues. Kyle Walker looks a bit of weak link at right-back, while in midfield the return of Jack Wilshere means the manager now faces the dilemma of what to do with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard also seeking spots in the team. History suggests it's one that hasn't been dealt with particularly well.

Up front, there's excitement about the damage Wayne Rooney and the Premier League's top scorer Daniel Sturridge could do. Could is the word here as the pair have only played 30 minutes together before. Yes, it could work well but it might not and it's no given the duo will click.

Despite that, Sturridge is sure to be a popular bet in the first goalscorer market.

However, I prefer the even money about there being under 2.5 goals. That's happened in that quartet of 'big' England games I've already mentioned, including the reverse fixture.

I'm going to double that up with under 2.5 goals in the Greece v Slovakia game.

The Greeks have a deserved reputation as a dour side, who grind out results. It was forged during their shock victory at Euro 2004 but it still relevant eight years on.

They have scored just nine goals in eight qualifiers so far, only managing to win 1-0 in Liechtenstein recently. The defence has been solid though, with just four conceded.

In the qualifying campaign so far, six of the Greeks' eight matches have featured under 2.5 goals and I'd expect that trend to continue - gambling on a change of style in a game they need to win seems unlikely.

Goals have hardly flowed in Slovakia's games either - they've also scored nine, conceding seven.

The reverse fixture brought a 1-0 Greece win and I can see something similar unfolding in Athens.

In terms of qualification, the game's already up for Wales, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland and attention will be turning towards Euro 2016.

With that tournament featuring 24 teams, the likes of Wales could do with a strong finish to this campaign as a decent seeding for February's draw could give them a good chance to reach the finals in four years' time.

The cards have not fallen Chris Coleman's way though ahead of Wales' home clash with Macedonia in Cardiff with no fewer than 10 players having already withdrawn from his squad.

They absentees are led by Gareth Bale, while captain Ashley Williams, Joe Allen and Joe Ledley will all also be missed. To add to the misery, man-of-the-moment Aaron Ramsey is also now a doubt.

Macedonia will doubtless by popular with punters who have heard the Wales team news. After all, Coleman's men are bottom of the group already having conceded 19 goals in their eight games so far. With a makeshift defence set to line-up on Friday, the away win will be backed.

However, before placing that bet you need to know the visitors have recently changed their manager following a disappointing campaign which has brought just a point more than Wales have accumulated.

Zoran Stratev has been placed in temporary charge and so the players could respond either by raising their game or simply going through the motions with a permanent successor still a way off.

The same could be said of the Republic of Ireland as they head off to Germany with Noel King in caretaker charge.

Personally I fear for them against a side who know a win will see them qualify for next summer's finals.

We saw last summer how Ireland were outclassed by the cream of Europe and they also lost 6-1 to the Germans in Dublin earlier in this campaign.

Backing the Germans (-2) on the handicaps at odds-against won't be the worst bet in the world against a team which could be without Robbie Keane and may include Sean St Ledger, who hasn't played a game since August 6.

  • Posted at 1830 BST on 09/10/2013.

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