x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

England hopeful, rather than expecting, automatic World Cup qualification

The weight of expectation could inhibit players against Poland, who have nothing to play for, writes Richard Jolly

Andros Townsend made an impressive goalscoring international debut in England’s 4-1 win over Montenegro on Friday. Michael Steele / Getty Images
Andros Townsend made an impressive goalscoring international debut in England’s 4-1 win over Montenegro on Friday. Michael Steele / Getty Images

Richard Jolly

England expects. Or so the phrase goes, anyway. A more accurate assessment might be that England does not know what to think. Those of a certain age are scarred by a past failure to beat Poland when they were 90 minutes from a World Cup, the 1-1 draw in 1973 that ultimately cost Sir Alf Ramsey, World Cup-winning manager of 1966, his job.

The younger generation, including some of the footballers who played that day, can recall the Euro 2008 eliminator against Croatia, when England contrived to lose 3-2 at Wembley Stadium.

England may have been excited by the attacking football produced in Friday’s 4-1 win over Montenegro, but it was rather nonplussed by the direct and defensive game plan Roy Hodgson deployed in last month’s draw with Ukraine.

England knows that it is only 90 minutes away from a guaranteed trip to Brazil next summer, that all that is required is a home win against a team, in Poland, with nothing to play for.

Yet it is also aware that Hodgson’s team have a solitary win against a side ranked in the world’s top 120 in qualifying: against Montenegro on Friday.

England sees a Poland team containing Borussia Dortmund’s Uefa Champions League finalists Jakub Blaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski, the four-goal scourge of Real Madrid, and worries.

Yet the reality is that, in a group of four moderate teams and two appalling ones, 10 of the Poles’ 13 points have come against San Marino and Moldova. They are yet to defeat half-decent opposition.

England watches on enviously as Italy, the Netherlands and Germany qualified early and easily, in carefree, cavalier fashion. It looks at the second-placed teams in other groups and realises France, Portugal and Croatia are potential play-off opponents.

So, admittedly, are Iceland, but the prospect of a fraught double-header in November nevertheless fills a nation with anxiety.

And so it comes down to this. Poland might be dangerous precisely because they have nothing to lose – “It doesn’t matter that we only have honour to play for,” said the captain Blaszczykowski – and England might be inhibited by the pressure.

They may look to their most inexperienced player to relieve it. Andros Townsend is not tarnished by past defeats and played with freedom in his scoring debut on Friday.

“He’s an exciting player with a great future,” said Wayne Rooney, himself the bright new thing a decade ago.

The Tottenham Hotspur winger was an uncharacteristically bold pick by Hodgson; an instinctively cautious manager played a formation that bordered on 4-2-4 against Montenegro. It would be reckless in the extreme against better opposition in the World Cup but it is a short-term gamble he is likely to repeat tonight.

With a natural preference for senior pros, Hodgson does not tend to be a champion of youth. He surprised by selecting Townsend, 22, and Rooney talked of his high hopes for the generation of Townsend, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck – all likely to start tonight – plus Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, who are competing to replace the suspended Kyle Walker at right-back; probable substitute Jack Wilshere and the injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

At the other end of the age spectrum is the partnership of the two centurions: Frank Lampard, with 101 caps, and Steven Gerrard, who has 106.

World Cup-winning teams tend to have a core of players in their late 20s but, while England could again field a midfield with an average age of 28, it is because Townsend and Welbeck, both 22, represent the opposites of Gerrard, 33, and Lampard, 35.

But that is England, splicing together the past and the future in an odd blend they anticipate will prevail in the present. This is not about expecting. Now, more than anything, England hopes.

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