ENGLAND boss Roy Hodgson has refused to consider Tuesday’s clash with Montenegro as a group decider.
His side head into the game in good heart after thrashing San Marino, but still sit two points adrift of the eastern Europeans following their narrow win in Moldova on Friday night.
With Ukraine securing an unexpected victory in Poland, Group H has now taken on a lop-sided look, with a six-point gap opening up between second-placed England and the rest.
It means victory in Podgorica for either side would leave them in a strong position to claim the single automatic qualification spot for next year’s World Cup in Brazil.
But England manager Hodgson does not view the situation in quite such simplistic terms.
As Ukraine are all but guaranteed six points from two matches against San Marino, and still have England to face on home soil, the Euro 2012 co-hosts remain clear dangers to England’s hopes.
“I know Ukraine had a bad start but they are a good team,” said Hodgson.
“I would certainly put them up there as one of the serious rivals, especially on the basis of what we saw in the Euros and what they did when they came to Wembley.
“I always thought it was going to be a bit of a dogfight between some of these teams. Montenegro have stolen a march but I don’t really dismiss the others.”
Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic scored the winner for Montenegro on Friday.
Hodgson will hardly need telling that Vucinic will present more of a threat to his side than San Marino managed.
On home soil they are a strong proposition, as was proved during a qualification game for Euro 2012 when they roared back from two goals down to claim a 2-2 draw against England in front of 12,500 passionate fans.
“Whatever the result in Moldova it would have still been a big game for us on Tuesday,” said Hodgson.
“Montenegro are one of our serious rivals for the top spot and we must do our best to get a win there.”
What Hodgson must be delighted about is having some selection posers to deal with.
No game against San Marino is going to unearth a star of the future. Yet England approached Friday’s 8-0 dismantling of the world’s joint-worst team with far more relish than they managed in the reverse fixture.
The speed and fluidity of their movement was too much for such limited opponents to cope with, allowing them to rack up the goals such an obvious imbalance in abilities deserved.
Kyle Walker was amongst those singled out for praise by Hodgson.
But two-goal Jermain Defoe and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were also worthy of mentions as two of the players not previously thought likely to figure against Montenegro. “Yes, absolutely,” said Hodgson, when asked whether he now had a selection headache.
“It’s important when you get a chance to play for England, regardless of the opposition, the manager’s faith in you is justified.
“A young lad like Kyle Walker must have come off the field pretty happy because he did what he had to do and what was expected of him.
“We are not stupid. We realise it was San Marino, not Brazil. But I don’t think there is much more you can do other than pass the ball properly or show good movement and application.”
The only downside for Hodgson was the confirmation Theo Walcott was returning home yesterday for treatment on the groin strain he sustained in Thursday’s training session. In addition, Gary Cahill will not be joining up as he has failed to shake off a knee problem.