Nestling beneath the predictable hyper-positive build-up to England’s forthcoming fixtures against San Marino and Montenegro is an important caveat which continues to be overlooked.
The prospect of England not qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil next summer would have been largely unthinkable when they thumped Moldova 5-0 in their first qualifying match last September.
Since then, Roy Hodgson’s men have only recorded one more win in three games – a 5-0 drubbing of lowly San Marino – which was sandwiched in between disappointing 1-1 draws against Ukraine and Poland.
Despite being two points off leaders Montenegro in Group H, England know that defeat to the Montenegrins on Tuesday would put them five points adrift of automatic qualification (assuming they beat San Marino tomorrow), and provided Montenegro also sweep aside minnows Moldova.
A five point gap, with four games remaining, could be insurmountable as the Three Lions would still face a tricky fixture away to Ukraine and a crucial match at home to Montenegro, who have already proven they can frustrate England – they recorded two creditable draws against them in qualification for Euro 2012.
If England were to miss out on automatic qualification, they could face a play-off against the likes of Spain or France in a worst-case scenario.
Dangerous teams such as Portugal, Sweden and Croatia are also play-off prospects after average starts to their respective qualifying campaigns.
This means that victory for England in Podgorica on Tuesday is absolutely essential, yet it doesn’t seem clear cut at all.
England’s defenders have deserted them. John Terry has retired from international football, the recalled Rio Ferdinand’s intricate pre-match preparations were deemed sufficient for him to withdraw from the squad, while Gary Cahill, Michael Dawson, Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones are all injured.
This means that England’s centre-back partnership will most likely hinge upon Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling, despite neither player being regular choices for Manchester City or United respectively.
Lack of match-practice and a relative level of inexperience when compared to other players means that Montenegro’s in-form strike partnership of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic – both prolific scorers for Fiorentina and Juventus in Serie A – will be licking their lips on Tuesday.
It’s a hazardous situation for England, but one which they can overcome.
A draw would not be the worst result for them, but it could potentially allow Poland to move level on points with them when they inevitably thrash San Marino the same day.
Defeat would move a play-off position ever closer, and the probability of coming through a two-legged tie against difficult opposition is no better than evens.
So, amongst all the world-beating headlines that will stick to the England team throughout the next few days, the gory sub-plot of failing to qualify for the World Cup remains an all too realistic shadow – and one which will intensify over Hodgson’s head should the unthinkable materialise.