By Mike Collett
ENGLAND have their World Cup qualifying fate in their own hands as they prepare to visit Ukraine for a pivotal Group H match in Kiev but the balance will switch the home side’s way if they chalk up a fifth successive group win on Tuesday.
England moved to the top of the standings when they beat a poor Moldova side 4-0 at Wembley on Friday but an otherwise straightforward victory was marred by a needless booking for in-form striker Danny Welbeck, ruling him out of Tuesday’s game.
His absence could cost England dearly against Ukraine, who earned their biggest ever win by beating San Marino 9-0 on Friday to stay just one point behind England with both teams having three matches to play.
England top the group with 15 points from seven games, followed by Montenegro (15 from eight) and Ukraine (14 from seven), with Poland, fourth on 10 points, retaining an outside chance of qualification
In the circumstances, there is little margin for error for either side and a draw will feel like a positive result for England who finish their campaign with home games against Montenegro and Poland in October.
Ukraine finish with a home match against Poland and a visit to San Marino.
The pressure on England, micro-monitored by a fevered media, to avoid defeat is enormous, and their cause will not be helped by Welbeck’s absence, especially as three other strikers -Wayne Rooney, Andy Carroll and Daniel Sturridge – are all out injured.
The main scoring responsibility looks as though it will fall to Southampton striker Rickie Lambert, 31, who has netted in his two matches for England after making his belated debut against Scotland last month and scoring again against Moldova.
Manager Roy Hodgson can call on the experienced Jermain Defoe, who has scored 19 times in his 54 appearances, but whoever plays in attack will rely on chances created from midfield where Michael Carrick could return.
The Manchester United midfielder missed Friday’s match, but could replace Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, who is in line to win his 100th cap, or Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere in a trio anchored by captain Steven Gerrard.
England won 1-0 in Donetsk the last time the sides met in Ukraine during Euro 2012 and needed a late Lampard penalty to force a 1-1 draw when they played the reverse qualifier at Wembley a year ago this week.
Since then Ukraine have improved considerably under coach Mykhaylo Fomenko, winning their last four qualifiers with an unbeaten run of eight in all matches over the last 11 months.
Ukraine will also be inspired to beat England after what they consider the injustice of their defeat in Donetsk in the Euros when Marko Devic should have been credited with a goal after his shot clearly crossed the line before being cleared by John Terry.
Much of Ukraine’s recent improvement has focused on the fine form of Roman Zozulya, who is back in the side after a one-game suspension and poses a serious threat playing just behind the likely lone marksman Devic.
Fomenko, like his counterpart Hodgson, knows exactly what is at stake on Tuesday and that his team’s 9-0 win over San Marino, like England’s 4-0 win over Moldova, will count for little once the match kicks off.
“It’s necessary to forget about the San Marino victory. We have reached the stage when each game is decisive,” he said.
“It is good that we have no injuries now, but would I settle for a draw against England ? I’ll answer that on October 15,” he added, referring to the date the group stage ends.
By Mike Collett