England’s shortcomings are well-documented and as such, there was something grimly inevitable about the misplaced euphoria stemming from last week’s demolition of a poor Moldova team being quickly offset by a laboured draw at home against Ukraine. With England alas, nothing ever really changes. Despite FIFA perplexingly placing the national team as the world’s 3rd finest, the predictable pattern of regulation victories over continental minnows followed by unconvincing victories or dispiriting draws with technically superior middle-ranking nations is effectively the default cycle of any qualification phase for a major finals.
Still, whilst a 1-1 tie with a youthful yet talented Ukraine hardly represents a major embarrassment, there is nevertheless little encouragement to be taken from the fixture. After all these years, the Lampard/Gerrard malady continues to linger numbingly on, with Roy Hodgson seemingly intent on crowbarring together a pairing whose infamous incompatibility has stifled the country’s progress for a decade. A typically insightful Guardian piece from Michael Cox has argued recently that the duo, now aged 34 and 32 respectively, only owe their present partnership to mutual decline and an enhanced positional discipline precipitated largely by diminished athleticism. Such sentiment is difficult to deny and it remains highly fanciful, as further evidenced by their last outing, that Lampard and Gerrard will ever possess the combined class to control possession, which remains an endemic weakness in the English game.
Harrowingly however, both remain amongst England’s more accomplished footballers. Although admittedly sapped by a spate of injuries and withdrawals, the squad competing in Chisinau and Wembley is surely amongst the most insipid and uninspired in living memory. Call-ups for the nondescript Jake Livermore alongside prosaic utility man Ryan Bertrand and most strikingly, Raheem Sterling are an affront to the eminence of the international game. With a meagre 5 Premier League appearances to his name, Sterling’s selection was patently absurd, particularly as the teenager has done little to suggest he is anything more mundane than the new Aaron Lennon. The winger’s rushed ascent is perhaps the most galling, graphic indictment of the paucity with which Hodgson is working.
Only within such a context can the astounding hyperbole which has engulfed burgeoning Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley be explained. Impressive against the hapless Moldovans, the 23 year-old was hastily likened to Spanish schemer Cesc Fábregas by his international manager, a comparison that crowned the hare-brained hurricane of hype that has characterised the past year of Cleverley’s career. At 23 Fábregas had racked up around 150 more top flight appearances, justified a billing alongside his generation’s most gifted footballers and won the World Cup. Contrastingly, Cleverley has thus far enjoyed a successful loan spell in the second tier, followed by a year of more qualified progress at Wigan Athletic before emerging as England’s latest Golden Boy by virtue of a handful of encouraging showings at the beginning of last season. Stricken by long-term injury shortly thereafter, Cleverley was therefore perfectly positioned to become the latest beneficiary of ‘What If Syndrome,’ a phenomenon which has elevated the reputations of Paul Scholes and Ledley King to hitherto unreachable heights, as in English football it would certainly appear that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Still, Cleverley’s trajectory was somewhat stalled by his wastefulness on Wednesday night, in his first competitive international in opposition with anything approaching a decent side. True, young players are obviously entitled to a little inconsistency but Cleverley is far from the playmaker his publicity presents him as. He will, in all likelihood, enjoy a long international career but although a talented player with above-average technique and intelligence he is not a natural number 10 and certainly not someone with anything like the range or extent of Fábregas’ gifts. Nevertheless, starting alongside the failed Lampard/Gerrard axis and the unspeakably dour James Milner, a man whose only virtues appear to be obedience and versatility, Cleverley must be considered England’s key creative hope. Naturally, such judgements are only relative and England will be hoping for absentees Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere to make swift recoveries in time for October’s round of qualifiers; even that for the latter that would appear an optimistic aim. Having witnessed the threat posed by Ukraine, England could certainly find themselves in similar discomfort against the outstanding forwards of Montenegro and to a slightly lesser extent, Poland.
Elsewhere, there was even less cause for cheer amongst the remaining Home Nations. Scotland, once more afflicted with a negative manager in Craig Levein, saw their campaign get off to a reasonable start with a creditable shut-out in Glasgow against Serbia, albeit with the result being achieved in characteristically dreary fashion. Remarkably, that scoreline was denounced as ‘disappointing’ by many in the press, an assessment indicative of the astonishing arrogance that besmirches the British game. The ignorance of such reaction was highlighted days later when the Scots had the woodwork and a man-of-the-match performance from goalkeeper Allan McGregor to thank for salvaging a 1-1 home draw with Macedonia, probably the weakest of the now independent states that made up the former Yugoslavia. Admittedly, the Macedonian goal carried the hint of offside with it but their superior class was obvious and given the dearth of talent available to Levein, his stand-off with Steven Fletcher, by some distance the most dangerous striker eligible (Jordan Rhodes remains unproven and most likely, over-priced), is inexplicably self-defeating.
Still, Scotland’s stultifying stalemate with Serbia was put into perspective by the Balkans’ 6-1 humbling of Wales in Novi-Sad on Tuesday. Although defeated 2-0 in Cardiff by Belgium just days before, the Welsh could seek solace from the fact that the gracelessly uncouth James Collins’ senseless early sending-off went some way to explaining the ease with which a hugely promising Belgian side strolled to victory. The Serbia game however exposed the glaring short-comings in a side thought to be amongst the better recent vintages, owing to the presence of the Liverpool’s Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal and particularly, Spurs winger Gareth Bale. Nonetheless, Serbia have quietly gone about assembling a richly exciting young side, playing a highly-fluent brand of gloriously technical football without a recognised centre-forward and spreading the goalscoring duties between 6 different players. The gulf in class was striking as Wales were never in the contest against a side languishing in 42nd place in FIFA’s latest rankings.
With perennial qualifiers Croatia completing the group, Wales or Scotland would be over-achieving should they finish 4th and the possibility of the 2 Celtic nations propping up the table behind the 3 Balkan sides and Belgium is a very real one. However, perhaps the most disturbing fixture for the Home Nations came with Northern Ireland’s failure to overcome uber-minnows Luxembourg in Belfast. Defeat in the previous round of fixtures to Russia was a given and indeed, keeping the scoreline to 0-2 was arguably a laudable performance yet despite Portugal only scraping a late, narrow victory in Luxembourg on the same matchday, the expectation remained that the principality’s gaggle of part-timers and journeymen would be routinely dismissed. However, Michael O’Neill’s men instead recalled the ignominy of 2010’s draw with the Faroe Islands (incidentally, the team responsible for Scotland’s international nadir with 2002’s 2-2 tie) in becoming one of the few European nations unable to overcome a nation whose population barely tops 500,000.
In the light of England’s stroll in Chisinau, talk had once again turned to the possibility of ‘pre-qualifiers,’ a hideously presumptuous, myopic and elitist process which would theoretically negate the need for Europe’s leading nations to bother with the tiresome inconvenience of facing San Marino, Andorra et al. The question of how such also-rans are determined however and where the line is drawn could potentially prove problematic for the likes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Domestic delusions would doubtless cast smaller Balkan nations such as Albania and Macedonia, the Baltic countries and probably the former Soviet states of the Caucasus as belonging to the tier just above the continent’s absolute minnows but as recent results and performances have highlighted, those regions are producing higher quantities of better footballers than most regions of the United Kingdom.