Lions should go large
Even Alan Shearer, with his questionable tactical foresight, dismissed the cliché that there are no easy games in international football, and highlighted England’s Friday night opponents, San Marino, as the weakest of the lot.
It’s a fixture that arrives at the most convenient time for the Three Lions. The fallout from a West London derby one year ago has been immense, and three more recent incidents have left the national team needing positive publicity.
From former-captain John Terry’s retirement to manager Roy Hodgon’s ill-advised comments on the Piccadilly line to Ashley Cole’s Twitter blast at the governing body, it’s been three weeks to forget for England’s players, management and Football Association.
In the circumstances, England need to put on a show for those losing faith in the national team and so they should. Go with the Three Lions to take apart the Sammarinese on a minus five handicap at Wembley.
It may seem a dangerous take when the England boss’ name has been built on his sides’ conservative approach, but we feel it’s that very reputation that has influenced this backable price. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that, in Hodgson’s 36-year managerial career, he would have ever faced a team so mismatched from his own men.
Indeed, two more offensive displays than expected may have forced such a tag to be re-examined anyway. England were 5-0 winners of an awkward opening game in Moldova, while the home draw with Ukraine could have been put to bed at half-time had Tom Cleverley brought his shooting boots with him.
There may be concerns in defence to address following the misdemeanours of the Chelsea pair, but they won’t matter this week against the side ranked 207th and bottom of FIFA’s world rankings. San Marino failed to score in any of their ten qualification matches for Euro 2012 yet conceded 53.
The hosts have even been boosted by Wayne Rooney’s return to the international fold after injury, and the Manchester United striker will be keen to get back on the goal trail after enduring a disrupted beginning to England life under Hodgson.
While a population of little over 30,000 may have to bear poor San Marino performances at home, the national side are much, much worse on the road. Since 2009, La Serenissima have lost 4-0 in Moldova, 5-0 in Slovenia, 6-0 in Sweden, 7-0 in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic, 8-0 in Hungary and then Finland, 10-0 in Poland and 11-0 in Holland.
The point with Ukraine last month has weakened England’s standing in Group H, from which only one side are guaranteed to progress. With the factor of goal difference a realistic possibility, Hodgson’s men will look to cement their superiority with an impressive strike-rate. They have the opportunity to do just that this week, providing they don’t do anything daft in the first eight seconds.
One hundred and fifty miles from Wembley, two of the other home nations – Wales and Scotland – meet in Group A and, while it’s too early to suggest it’s a must win game for the pair, if either harbour hopes of an appearance in Brazil in 2014, they need to quickly start picking up points.
The managers of each country have come under recent fire from supporters. Wales have lost all five matches since Chris Coleman took charge in tragic circumstances, while Scotland boss Craig Levein has faced strong criticism for negative tactics undertaken in home matches.
Levin has at least tried to right his wrongs, and has ended his feud with Steven Fletcher by recalling the in-form striker to his squad after previously stating he wouldn’t again select him. The 25-year-old is now expected to make his first Scotland appearance since August 2010.
The Scots definitely look the pick of the two sides, especially considering the doubts hanging over Gareth Bale's availability for an already weakened Welsh squad, but the best priced 17/10 hardly constitutes value.
Instead, have a slight interest on Fletcher ending his exile in the best possible manner, by scoring first against a Wales outfit that have conceded the opener in every fixture under Coleman’s leadership.
Meanwhile, get involved with the re-emergence of an impressive Switzerland team who host Norway in Berne.
Much of the talk around Europe has been of an up-and-coming Belgian side, but the Swiss are enjoying a renaissance of their own following the retirement of the old guard, and look a good bet to continue their 100% start to their World Cup qualifying campaign.
Record goalscorer Alexander Frei may have called time on his international career, but with the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Goekhan Inler, Stefan Lichtsteiner and Valon Behrami, they have an ideal balance between youth and experience to prevail.
They were comfortable 2-0 winners in both September encounters, at home to Albania and at Slovenia, results that backed-up some impressive friendly showings in 2012, most notably when they put four past Croatia and five past Germany.
It’s all a stark contrast to Norway, who were indebted to John Arne Riise’s injury-time penalty to sneak past Slovenia last month, while they have recently fallen to defeats when up against Iceland and Greece.
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