By Martyn Herman
Nine points from three games in a mediocre Euro 2016 qualifying group means fans can begin to dust off their French phrase books as surely not even England can make a drama out of this one.
The expanded format for the next finals has removed any sense of tension from the qualifying stages, leaving Roy Hodgson’s England side to cut loose in a series of one-sided fixtures against Europe’s makeweight nations.
That is the idea anyway, although so far there is scant evidence that England are setting out on a brave new path out of the doldrums and apathy hanging over the national team.
A decent 2-0 opening victory in Switzerland put England in complete control of Group E but the performances in the next two games against San Marino and Estonia have produced more gloom.
It took England nearly 25 minutes to break down Europe’s worst side at Wembley last week on the way to a 5-0 victory over San Marino – a ludicrously lop-sided fixture in which Hodgson deemed it necessary to start with two defensive midfielders.
With San Marino’s sole purpose being to build a wall in front of their goal, England spent most of the first half passing the ball around harmlessly in front of them while the pace and trickery of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andros Townsend and Adam Lallana was left on the bench.
Against Estonia on Sunday it was a similar story as Hodgson’s side laboured to a 1-0 win in Tallinn.
Wayne Rooney’s strike 17 minutes from time sealed the points but the captain had been so ineffective prior to his goal that he was apparently about to be substituted by Rickie Lambert.
“It was a frustrating night for him. He had a lot of the ball, had a lot of half-chances, so I think he’d have been bitterly disappointed if he’d come off the field without having scored a goal and I think he would have blamed himself,” Hodgson said of Rooney.
Hodgson used the same diamond formation in midfield that served him well against Switzerland but with Raheem Sterling ‘rested’ after his exertions against San Marino, there was precious little to unduly worry Estonia’s massed ranks.
With England trotting out the same old lines and no one capable of a moment of off the cuff magic, it took the visitors until nearly half-time to register a shot on target.
Even when Estonia skipper Ragnar Klavan received his marching orders early in the second half, England failed to break the shackles.
Hodgson will say “job done” but with qualification now almost assured, fans will need to see something to get the pulse racing in the next international break in November if interest is not to dwindle still further.
Sterling provides the obvious solution.
The livewire Liverpool forward is clearly England’s ace in the pack and, if anything was learned from Sunday’s grinding victory, it is that without him England have no fear factor.
The next time Sterling tells him “he is feeling tired” – as was the case in the build-up to the Estonia clash – Hodgson might be better advised to give him a gentle nudge and tell him to get his boots on and get one with it.