sport

Hodgson focused on top spot

England coach Roy Hodgson insists he has no intention of accepting second best in the Three Lions' World Cup quest.

After their encouraging 2-1 victory over Brazil on Wednesday, Hodgson's team now have a six week break before they are in action again.

And that trip to Rimini for a meeting with San Marino is very much the hors d'oeuvre for an encounter with Montenegro that is likely to shape England's qualification prospects.

For, after dropping points already in draws against Ukraine and Poland, should England lose in Podgorica, they would have little chance of topping their group and securing automatic qualification to Brazil 2014.

It had been suggested in some quarters that Hodgson was prepared for that, and would not regard the play-offs as the end of the world.

Now he has cleared up the confusion.

"I have never said I would settle for that," he said. "We are trying to win the group.

"What I might have said is if we don't win the group, we will try and win the play-offs.

"But there is no question of us taking a play-off route."

Ukraine gave themselves a problem with their surprising failure to overcome Moldova in October, but Poland and Montenegro are still in contention, even if England remain favourites.

Certainly there was little comparison between England's victory against Brazil, epitomised by that dazzling performance from Jack Wilshere, and Poland's late defeat to the Republic of Ireland.

Hodgson needs no reminding though that the Three Lions have so often struggled to match lofty reputations when the real action begins.

"We were the top seeds in the group. We are seeded to win it," he said.

"It doesn't always happen of course.

"All teams like ourselves accept the responsibility and will do our best.

"But I won't be accepting it is over until we are more than three points off first place and there is only one game left to play.

"Don't forget I was at Fulham when we had three games to go and were 2-0 down at Manchester City.

"But we never gave it up. We never said we can't do it. And in the end we got out of it."

Clearly, Hodgson is now at the mercy of fate.

For a start, two of his most important players, Wayne Rooney and Wilshere, have crucial Champions League games to navigate.

Central defence still looks uncertain, with Gary Cahill growing into the status of a senior international rather than actually being one and confusion remaining over his best partner, as question marks hang over Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka.

And Danny Welbeck needs to become a more consistent goal threat, even if he is asked to fill the problematic left-sided berth in attack.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of positives to take from Wednesday night's game.

Central midfield strength in depth is obvious. Thirty caps and seven years after he was ushered into the international fold far too quickly by Sven-Goran Eriksson, Theo Walcott is finally developing into a top-class talent.

And in both full-back positions, Hodgson has genuine choice.

The doubt is how good that Brazil side was on Wednesday.

No-one truly believes they are the 18th best team in the world, as the FIFA rankings suggest.

They are some way off their best though. And two days training at Barnet, followed by a freezing cold February night at Wembley is not the best backdrop from which to assess them anyway.

More will be learned about Luis Felipe Scolari's World Cup hosts on June 2, when England head to the Maracana.

Win that one and Hodgson will really have something to shout about.