If Greg Dyke had got his act together sooner there could be a Harry Kane playing for every team in the Premier League. If ever there was a case of locking the stable door too late it’s the chairman of the FA advocating quotas of players eligible for England getting starts in domestic football after the debacle of the 2014 World Cup.
England have made an almost perfect start to their campaign to qualify for the finals of Euro 2016. However, the public don’t really care if they beat Lithuania in a virtually meaningless match. Supporters of the national team craved a decent showing in Brazil last summer when England performed worst of all 32 nations relative to their position in the FIFA world rankings.
The national team are fourth favourites to win the European Championships, behind Germany, France and Spain. England have played four matches in qualifying Group E, won each while scoring 11 goals and conceding one and that was an own goal. Two teams qualify for the finals in France next summer and the third placed side can make the tournament through the play-off route. It’s harder to fail to qualify than get through in this context and failure now would surely cost Roy Hodgson his job.
In beating Switzerland away in their first fixture of the campaign England just about assured they would finish second at worst in the group. They now face a number of uncompetitive matches and the side could remain unbeaten and may not even drop a point. However, there is no joy in beating average sides after the dire effort in the World Cup. England could have played Brazil in the quarter finals, bringing together the nation that invented the sport and the one that took it to the highest level.
Hodgson does not seem to have grasped that a World Cup in South America comes around about every 20 years and there will not so much joy in the next tournaments in Russia and Qatar. The next truly happy World Cup will probably be in 2026 which England may host but by then Hodgson and Dyke will be long gone. Germany delivered when it mattered but England left their loyal supporters disappointed and frustrated. The draw in the final group game against Costa Rica was the worst match of the tournament.
In eleven years Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Kane could still be in the squad. Sadly it’s a long time to wait for the next opportunity to play in an event in a country that is passionate about the sport rather than trying to make a political and economic impact on the global stage. The World Cup should not be played in Russia or Qatar as those nations cannot win it and the hosts should be potential world champions. The atmosphere will not be as joyful in the stadiums as during the 2014 tournament in Brazil until the hosts were humiliated by Germany in the semi-finals.
The farcical situation in which a team that finishes third in a group of six nations can still qualify for the European finals has been created by increasing the number of participants from 16 to 24. A 16 team tournament had perfect symmetry but adding 8 more qualifiers muddies the waters and does not make for a natural progression through the stages. The group matches will eliminate just one third of the competing sides so some matches in the finals will count for very little. It seems the tournament has been expanded to keep the smaller nations sweet.
England are certain to qualify for the Euro finals and must take Kane who has emerged as the best English player in the Premier League over the last six months. He could join Andy Gray, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale as winners of the player of the year and young player of the year in the same season. Kane is also well placed to win the Golden Boot, the prize awarded to the leading scorer in the Premier League. He could either be the best England striker since Alan Shearer or merely a one-season freak but he is getting a chance with national team.
Hodgson hinted that Kane may start alongside Wayne Rooney in the European Championships qualifier against Lithuania at Wembley on Friday night. His training ground notes were caught on camera with those two names circled, suggesting that will be his preferred partnership for a match England should win with plenty in hand. Lithuania have won two of their four qualifying matches, scoring six goals and conceding six overall. They are 94th in the current FIFA rankings, 77 places below England.
Lithuania have not qualified for the World Cup or Euros since becoming independent from the Soviet republic in 1990. The country was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 so for fifty years did not enter separate sides in major tournaments. The nation has a population of less than three million people which makes it the 123rd most populated country in the world. The population is actually falling due to emigration to more economically secure nations.
Most of the squad play domestic football in Eastern Europe but there are players from Glasgow Rangers and Leicester City in the current group. Only one player who is regularly selected has won more than 40 caps and the highest goal scorer in contention to play against England has scored just five goals in 70 matches. Lithuania have been competitive since the inception of the nation without making any finals.
England have never played Lithuania in a full international so there are no head-to-head records to assess. In qualifying to date England average 2.75 goals per match and their opponents have scored at a rate of 0.75 goals after both sides have played four fixtures. England’s biggest victory is 5-0 while Lithuania’s heaviest defeat is 4-0 so a score along those lines on Friday evening is expected. Kane could become the first player to score three goals on his England debut.