England: Lightweight opponents pose problem for Hodgson

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Wayne Rooney
Wayne Rooney's penalty against San Marino leaves him two behind Jimmy Greaves in England's all-time scoring list

Another game against San Marino and another embarrassingly easy England win - five meetings with the lowest-ranked team in world football and a not unflattering aggregate of 31-1.

There were no surprises as England won 5-0 at Wembley, as they did when this fixture was a World Cup qualifier in October 2012. Move forward to these Euro 2016 qualifying games and the story is the same.

And with Switzerland - supposedly England's closest rivals - losing to Slovenia, the impression that Group E will be little more than a formality for Roy Hodgson and his players gathers further momentum ahead of Sunday's game in Estonia.

So what can be gleaned from as close as you can get to a pointless exercise in international football?

A 'group of death' for different reasons?

England v San Marino
England have beaten San Marino in all five meetings and had 34 shots at goal on Thursday

Death, in this instance, may well be the death of excitement and interest in a group that does not contain the slightest hint of box office for England and their fans.

Hodgson, as he must, will take matters deadly seriously and England should take credit for the professional manner in which San Marino, joint 208th alongside Bhutan at the foot of the Fifa rankings, were disposed of.

But if they continue this untroubled progress amid a very kind draw on the road to Euro 2016, the Football Association may find difficulty in ramping up the public's fancy to ensure these qualifiers do not die a death through lack of interest.

What was a good sign was an excellent crowd of 55,990 inside Wembley on Thursday, albeit with an eerie atmosphere until Everton captain Phil Jagielka put England ahead. After barely scraping over 40,000 for the friendly against Norway, this was an attendance that will have been greeted with pleasure, and perhaps some relief, by the Football Association.

This is the sort of group that would be perfect for the FA to take England back on the road but they are locked in to Wembley and are unlikely even to consider playing games away from their home for many years, perhaps in 2018 if an NFL franchise bases itself there.

Lightweight group poses problems for Hodgson

Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana and Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain impressed as second-half substitutes

England look so far ahead of their other rivals in this group after beating Switzerland and San Marino - with Estonia, Lithuania and Slovenia to come - that the only difficulty may be the guard that will have to be erected against complacency.

But while England look certain to make comfortable progress to Euro 2016, the lack of strong opponents in their group may actually present Hodgson with a dilemma - although he will not complain about certain aspects of the draw he has been handed.

The problem is there is no way he can make serious decisions on any of his players on the basis of performances produced against the likes of San Marino.

The Wembley way?
When England played San Marino in October 2012, the attendance at Wembley was 85,654
On Thursday just 55,990 fans were in the stadium
England were cheered on by 40,181 for their previous game at Wembley, a 1-0 win against Norway in September
That was the lowest attendance since the stadium re-opened in 2007

Hodgson would, ideally, like to test out central defensive options such as Manchester United pair Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, along with the best prospect of all in Everton's John Stones, against high-calibre opposition. He will want to guard against the possibility of England getting caught cold when they get to the finals in France.

He will also want to see whether Jack Wilshere really is up to playing the holding role in a diamond formation against teams of a better standard. The suspicion remains that this is not his natural position and Hodgson will want to make the definitive judgement on that before France.

Also, with Danny Welbeck such a success in Daniel Sturridge's absence, Hodgson may want to explore attacking combinations. Can Welbeck and Sturridge operate together in attack or will one have to be sacrificed? Will it become a battle between the two to lead England's forward line, with Wayne Rooney tucked in just behind?

While Hodgson may relish this favourable group, he will need to test all these tactical alternatives against a better calibre of side if he is to garner worthwhile answers.

Will England be ready for Euro 2016?

With the standard of opposition in the group unlikely to offer the sort of preparation they will need to face elite teams in a tournament, there is work to be done to ensure England arrive in France able to challenge the continent's best teams.

It means the FA will need to choose friendlies shrewdly and there is every likelihood the hostility and opposition that will meet them when they travel to face Scotland in Glasgow next month will be a sterner test than most of what they will face on the route to Euro 2016.

The bottom line is that if England fail to reach the Euros, heads - and quite a few of them - would roll. So there is a need to face stronger opponents away from these qualifiers to get an accurate measure of exactly where England stand when they come to their next major tournament, so vital after the World Cup failure in Brazil.

Do these games jeopardise Euros' credibility?

Once again San Marino proved they are not even the slightest threat in these games. No contest, no danger, simply another unsuccessful attempt at damage limitation.

Since drawing with Latvia in 2001, San Marino have now conceded 300 goals and scored seven in 65 qualifying games. Will that grim situation ever improve? Will they ever actually threaten to win a competitive match? Not on any evidence they have presented recently.

Part-timers: day jobs of the San Marino team
Aldo Simoncini (goalkeeper) age 28: accountant
Mirko Palazzi (defender) 27: professional at Italian fourth division club Rimini
Alessandro Della Valle (defender) 32: works in a ceramics shop
Fabio Vitaioli (defender) 30: works in a clothes shop
Lorenzo Buscarini (defender) 23: student
Alex Gasperoni (midfielder) 30: runs a lighting business
Matteo Vitaioli (midfielder) 24: factory worker
Michele Cervellini (midfielder) 26: lawyer
Luca Tosi (midfielder) 23: office clerk
Andy Selva (striker) 38: youth football coach
Danilo Rinaldi (striker) 26: works for a furniture shop

This was another illustration that there should be pre-qualifying for teams of San Marino's standard. This may seem harsh in football's global context but there must come a time when the worth of what they bring to European Championship and World Cup qualifiers must be reassessed.

Watching England dismiss such pitiful opposition yet again, with goalkeeper Joe Hart reduced to little more than an interested onlooker, puts the credibility of this sort of Euro 2016 qualifier into question.

It does England little or no good, does San Marino no good whatsoever and does Uefa's credibility harm when it effectively has a nation which is little more than football's punchbag.

It is time to consider pre-qualifying for countries of a certain stature to remove the spectacle of walkovers such as this.


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