There was a surprise in rugby union's Aviva Premiership this week, Sam Harrison looks at the changes in the tableWritten by Sam Harrison on 28th September 2016
Hodgson has chance to stamp authority on England side
Ross Highfield says the England manager can finally put his mark on the Three Lions but that World Cup glory in 2014 is still little more than a pipe dream...
As starts to life as an England manager go, Roy Hodgson, despite some early negative press, did not have too tough a time. Whilst his first competitive game was at the European Championship finals, this was a championship that, for once, the English media and population did not expect to win.
The lack of expectation on entering the tournament ultimately helped Hodgson as his team were comprehensively outclassed by Italy. Unlike Fabio Capello two years earlier, there was no backlash against him; Hodgson seemingly curried favour simply by virtue of ‘not being that Italian.’ Hodgson’s mission was a longer term one than Euro 2012, a tournament he had not even led the side to.
In many ways, then, we can almost say that Hodgson’s reign as England manager starts now, with a new set of qualifiers for a tournament, a series of fixtures for which he will have sole responsibility. He will no longer be leading another manager’s team into a tournament at short notice - he now has the time to build his own England side.
It is not the most difficult of openings. The biggest challenges of a match in Chisinau are logistics and the expected state of the local pitch, and England will then host Ukraine at Wembley four days later. But there will be other concerns with several players unavailable for selection, whilst there is often little appetite for international football so soon after a major international tournament.
When only three Premier League matches have been played, September internationals always feel like an interruption from the real business of league football, with no consolation of an upcoming tournament to make it all seem worthwhile. But then, for a quiet, articulate man like Hodgson, calmly picking up six points by next Tuesday evening will be just fine.
The English national team has reached a strange junction: with the players currently at our disposal, there should be no doubt about our qualification for major tournaments. But what then? Few believe England can come close to matching Italy and Germany technically, without even considering the supremely-gifted Spaniards, the emerging Brazil side who will host the next World Cup and other Latin Americans who would expect to impress in a South American tournament such as Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay. There is a sense that we are a nation playing merely for quarter-final appearances.
For those who will struggle to muster up an appetite for two presumed comfortable England victories against weak opposition, there is plenty of interest elsewhere in this opening round of qualifiers. Didier Deschamps becomes the latest man to attempt to get the best out of an incredibly-gifted, yet incredibly-petulant French side. As after World Cup 2010, several French players find themselves suspended as qualification for the next tournament begins for bad behaviour at a major tournament.
Elsewhere, Italy kick off with a trip to Bulgaria. The Italians are notorious for turning it on in tournament football, as was the case in an unexpected run to the Euro 2012 final, but with such a core of Juventus players – players who this season will be playing in the Champions League – it will be interesting to see just how good a set of players Cesare Prandelli has at his disposal.
A hotly-tipped Belgian side will also be on British shores this weekend for a game against a possibly-nascent Wales side. Belgium have not appeared at a major tournament since 2002, but then a nation of their size can rarely boast such players as Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Moussa Dembele and Axel Witsel in one generation.
After the Euros and the Olympics, Brazil 2014 seems like a rather long way away, an event barely linked to the opening games of the qualifying tournament on Friday evening. And if there is really nothing to whet the appetite in the first round of matches, the Premier League will be back with us in a week.