With three games of England’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign gone, Roy Hodgson can afford to be pleased with himself. The Three Lions sit top of Group E and, just as importantly, kept their 100% record intact following their 1-0 win over Estonia.
The three games contested so far that make up that 100% record include their 2-0 away victory in Switzerland, a fixture which many believed would be England’s toughest of the whole qualifying campaign.
While that encouraging three points in Basel and victories against San Marino and Estonia alone are not enough to eclipse memories of England’s disappointing summer World Cup campaign, taking maximum points from qualifying would ease the pressure and provide a huge confidence boost to a side that is still developing.
Although England’s group stage exit in Brazil – their first at a World Cup since 1958 – was a huge blow to the national team’s development, there was also a sense that they were not a million miles away from making progress. Recent additions to the England set-up such as Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luke Shaw showed great promise during the game time they were given in Brazil, and the experience they were given should only aid their development. Sterling in particular attracted much admiration, and has continued to impress and looks set to become a vital part of England’s preparations for Euro 2016.
But of course, though they were rightly spared any fierce criticism after their frustrating World Cup venture, England cannot allow this to become the acceptable standard. The aspirations for Euro 2016 must be much higher if they truly want to regain the full backing of the supporters.
Some positive individual performances in Brazil and a notable victory in Switzerland has bought Hodgson’s side some time with the fans and they must capitalize on that by taking maximum points in Group E.
Evidently, that is something easier said than done. Switzerland, who almost shocked World Cup finalists Argentina during their second round clash this summer when only an Angel Di Maria strike in the final minutes of extra time separated the sides, still have to visit Wembley. They are likely to be desperate to claim three points following a disappointing start to their qualification campaign, which has seen them lose to England and Slovenia.
The Swiss also proved a tough test for the Three Lions during their last competitive meeting at Wembley, when they met during qualifying for Euro 2012. Tranquillo Barnett scored twice to give his side hope of a shock victory against Fabio Capello’s England three years ago, though goals from Frank Lampard and Ashley Young would go on to spare the home side’s blushes and salvage them a point.
Hodgson’s side also still have fixtures against Slovenia to contend with. The eastern Europeans have bounced back well from their opening defeat away to Estonia, and also memorably pushed England all the way during their decisive World Cup group stage match in South Africa in 2010.
But heading to France on the back of a 100% record in qualifying is not an unreasonable target for this England side. It would also not be arrogant, despite the watered-down expectations of the national side in recent years. They have players capable of exciting fans and causing the opposition great discomfort if they are utilized correctly and continue to play regularly at club level.
Sceptics of England’s opportunity to develop in Group E would fairly point out that it lacks a true, established, heavyweight opponent for them to test their growth against, the type of test that their group in Brazil offered. However, ten straight competitive victories would still be a difficult run of form to ignore, particularly given the intense scrutiny that the side is likely to be under in the aftermath of the World Cup.
There will be a certain amount of patience among fans as England look to rebuild following the recent departures of the remaining players of the so-called ‘golden generation’. However, this qualifying campaign also presents an opportunity to install some confidence and discipline into the side, which will be vital ahead of their next challenge on the world stage.