Cautious England and Hodgson will settle for Ukraine draw
England manager's fear of World Cup failure means chances will be at a premium
Reaching next year's World Cup remains on the line for England and they face a crunch match on Tuesday in Ukraine, their final away game of a qualifying campaign that has turned out to be considerably more difficult than expected.
England made a solid start under Roy Hodgson, conceding only six goals in their first 10 competitive games and remaining unbeaten in 90-minute play, but a lack of cutting edge let them down, particularly against the higher-class teams.
Ukraine and Montenegro, England's next two opponents, both fall into that category. They are rated the joint-second-best teams in group H by Fifa, both ranked 28, but Tuesday's match is the most difficult left for England, by virtue of being away from home.
Matches between countries both rated in the Fifa top 30 tend to be tightly contested and Hodgson may well be happy to return from Ukraine with a draw. In the past decade England have won just four out of 11 away to teams ranked in the top 30, with four draws and three defeats - a record that is far from unusual even for a country from the world's top 10.
Two of those away matches were against Ukraine and both ended 1-0. The first game was four years ago in World Cup qualifying, when Ukraine came out on top but had two significant factors in their favour - England had already qualified and played most of the match with 10 men after goalkeeper Rob Green was sent off in the 14th minute.
A better guide, perhaps, is England's win in Euro 2012, when Ukraine were co-hosts but were knocked out by Wayne Rooney's winning goal. But the ageing Ukraine side led at Euro 2012 by Andriy Shevchenko has been refreshed by an influx of younger players, while Rooney is unavailable for England after his training-ground accident.
Ukraine were arguably unlucky not to win the reverse fixture at Wembley 12 months ago when they led for almost 50 minutes before being pegged back to 1-1 by Frank Lampard's late penalty. Rooney didn't play in that game and England's poor performance without him will give Ukraine hope for Tuesday's return match.
England, however, appear more able to cover for Rooney's absence this time. Jermain Defoe was the only fit and experienced striker available to Hodgson for last year's match, but there is now more strength in depth, thanks to an emerging generation of young players.
It will be a fascinating match between two teams in the process of rejuvenation but at the same time under enormous pressure to qualify for the World Cup. The fear of failure may lead to a safety-first, low-scoring match, which appears the default setting for Hodgson in big games.
Three of the four competitive meetings between Ukraine and England have had under 2.5 goals and that looks a solid bet, although it is worth noting that over 2.5 goals has occurred in six of England's nine away games in the past decade against top-30 sides other than Ukraine.
Any punter who fancies an England win should consider over 2.5 goals too, as three of their four away wins against that category of opposition in the past decade have come that way.
As so often, however, England are too short. The draw looks the best match bet given the likelihood of a close, low-scoring game, with Ukraine narrowly preferred on the handicap. Their 4-0 win this summer in Montenegro - where England have drawn on their last two visits - was influenced by three sendings-off (two for the hosts and one for Ukraine) but was still a hint that their young side is improving fast. Now on home soil, Ukraine could pose even more problems for England than they did a year ago and it would not be a surprise if they won.
Switzerland, who came into the autumn internationals unbeaten in 10 matches, look one of the better bets on Tuesday when they rate the handicap pick away to Norway. The Swiss were lucky to land in one of the weaker qualifying groups, but they have taken advantage in impressive style and their mean defence makes them hard to beat.
Romania, despite a high draw rate, are worth considering at home to Turkey, while Bosnia-Herzegovina have a decent shot on the handicap away to Slovakia. Led by Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko, Bosnia-Herzegovina's attack has been easily the most potent in group G and always gives them a winning chance.
- Switzerland on handicap Group E leaders are very solid
- Ukraine on handicap No surprise if they edge a close game
- Romania home win Good chance against a declining Turkey
- Bosnia-Herzegovina on handicap Goal threat makes them Tuesday's best bet
- Russia v Israel over 2.5 goals The reverse fixture was 4-0 to Russia
Rotherham, Switzerland, Ukraine, Denmark, Serbia, Romania, Bosnia-Herzegovina.