When the Preliminary Draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ was made in Rio de Janeiro, Fabio Capello was in charge of England. He was present to witness them paired with Ukraine, Montenegro, Poland, Moldova and San Marino. It was a campaign which the English press and public alike thought would hold few problems.
Yet the Three Lions were only comfortable of booking their place in Brazil two minutes from time in the final qualifier against Poland, when Steven Gerrard ran through a weary defence before firing the ball home. Capello’s successor Roy Hodgson leapt from his seat to celebrate. A year earlier, FIFA.com had been in his office at Wembley to discuss his World Cup dream.
“It would certainly be something to go to a World Cup with England,” he said. “That would really mean something a little bit more because it was England that formed me, England that gave me my education in coaching, the FA that started me on the path to being a football coach. It would be fantastic to be in Brazil with an England team.”
The displays of Leighton Baines
When the preliminary campaign began, there was a huge debate as to who was the country’s best left-back, Leighton Baines or Ashley Cole. While supporters of Cole pointed at his defensive prowess, it was felt that Baines offered far more of an all-round threat. Just as he scored in the opening qualifier, a 5-0 win in Moldova from a free-kick, so too was he influential in the final match with Poland, crossing the ball expertly for Wayne Rooney to score. The Everton man missed out on a place at South Africa 2010, with Capello preferring Stephen Warnock as Cole’s understudy, but barring injury Baines is surely on the plane to Brazil.
The Cahill-Jagielka partnership
With Rio Ferdinand and John Terry’s careers coming to an end, it was important for Hodgson to find adequate replacements with 2014 on the horizon. Although plenty of names were in the frame and subsequently tested, it was Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Everton’s Phil Jagielka who became the tried and trusted pairing. In qualification, England conceded just 18 shots on target in ten games, with only Spain (16 in eight) allowing fewer. This was due, in part, to the tireless work of the central defensive duo, who formed a good understanding with their fullbacks as well as Joe Hart.
Steven Gerrard has lifted five trophies in his decade as Liverpool skipper and he was the natural choice to be named permanent England captain just before UEFA EURO 2012. It was fitting that Gerrard scored the final goal of England’s World Cup qualifying campaign against Poland at Wembley, to top off a series of fine individual performances as he has inspired and cajoled his team-mates to the top of European Group H. He may have scored just two goals on the way to the finals, but only three players (Joao Moutinho, Mesut Ozil and Zvjezdan Misimovic) created more chances than England’s No4 in European qualifying. Gerrard started every game bar the two matches against San Marino, as Hodgson’s trusted lieutenant played a massive part in England's road to South America.
Rooney, the main man again
It came as no surprise that it was Wayne Rooney who lifted the tension at Wembley twice in the space of five days. He opened the scoring against both Montenegro and Poland as a nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. Rooney was England’s go-to man for goals, his seven strikes making him the first player to top-score for England in two separate World Cup qualifying campaigns (he netted nine in South Africa 2010 qualifying). It was a prolific campaign for Rooney, as he made only six appearances, playing the full 90 minutes just three times, meaning he averaged a goal every 67 minutes.
With an FA-commissioned report into England’s ability to produce talent on the horizon, Hodgson made a case for the current crop of young stars during the qualifying campaign. He gave full debuts to Ross Barkley and Andros Townsend in World Cup qualifiers, with the latter scoring on his debut against Montenegro. Manchester United forward Danny Welbeck flourished under his stewardship, scoring four goals in the campaign, and Jack Wilshere made several impressive performances after returning from injury. Add to that quartet the pair of competitive goals for then 19-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and a handful of friendly debuts for players like Wilfried Zaha, Raheem Sterling and Steven Caulker, and England’s future looks fairly bright.