The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
5 things to know about Group H qualifiers, as England can reach World Cup with 2 wins
LONDON - England knows that two victories in its final World Cup qualifiers will guarantee a spot in Brazil next year, with a game against Montenegro at Wembley first up in Group H on Friday. The Three Lions play at home against Poland on Tuesday, looking to avoid missing out on the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. Ahead of Friday's matches, England leads Montenegro and Ukraine by one point and is three points ahead of Poland. Ukraine plays Poland on Friday and San Marino away on Tuesday. Here are five things to know about Friday's games:
ROONEY BACK AND HAPPY
England manager Roy Hodgson is welcoming back Wayne Rooney after the Manchester United striker missed the September internationals because of a head injury. The really good news for Hodgson is that Rooney is back in form, and looks happy again following Alex Ferguson's retirement.
Rooney complained of being used out of position during Ferguson's final year at United and having to play in midfield. But he insisted he is now happy under new manager David Moyes, who is playing him up front.
"There came a point where I had to be a bit selfish for my own career," said Rooney. "Everyone at the club knew where I wanted to play. That wasn't happening. I've had no problem playing out of position in the past, but I'm a forward and I felt I deserved the right to play in my position. David Moyes has come in, he's playing me up front, and I'm enjoying it."
Group H is the tightest of all nine European groups, with the top four separated by three points and all playing each other in the final qualifiers, but Hodgson is confident his team will make it to Brazil. The last time England did not qualify for the World Cup was in 1994, and Hodgson believes his players will avoid such a "doomsday" scenario.
"My life at the moment is on these two games (against Montenegro and Poland)," Hodgson said. "As for the doomsday scenarios put before me, I won't have to confront them because I believe and am confident the team will do it."
England was held to a 1-1 draw by Montenegro in March and also shared the points with Poland after another 1-1 draw in Warsaw last year.
"I am, of course, always nervous. Any football coach worthy of the name, who really believes in his work, is nervous when the whistle goes," Hodgson said. "He wants all the things he wants to see come about, he is nervous the referee might make a terrible decision that might affect the team, so you can't be involved at this level and not be nervous. "
HART STILL NUMBER ONE
England goalkeeper Joe Hart's season has been marred by blunders, but the Manchester City player has Hodgson's full backing ahead of the crucial double header. Hart made two big mistakes in City's 3-1 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, yet his position as England's No. 1 keeper is not in danger.
"As far as I'm concerned, Joe Hart is my No. 1. He has never let me down," Hodgson said. "I am not blind to the situation, I do realize it is not a good moment for Joe. He is a proud man and a very good goalkeeper and I am sure when he is criticized he is unhappy. I still believe in Joe. I believe he is the right man for the job and I don't believe he will let England down."
NO GOALS GUARANTEED, BUT SPECTATORS AT LEAST
Ukraine will have the luxury of playing Poland in front of spectators after FIFA lifted an empty stadium ban to examine an appeal that challenged the governing body's findings of racist and threatening behaviour by Ukrainian fans during the Sept. 6 qualifier against San Marino in Lviv.
Ukraine coach Mykahilo Fomenko welcomed the decision, saying the fans will likely give a useful boost to his team.
"Imagine that you came to a meeting with someone and that someone doesn't show up," he said. "Football players play for the fans. It is no wonder that fans are called the 12th player. What is football without emotions?"
Forward Marko Devic — who is enjoying a good run of form, having scored 13 goals in 12 rounds of domestic league play — will try to make sure he gives the fans some emotions.
LESS PLAYING TIME FOR ENGLISH PLAYERS
Last month, the head of English football said an alarmingly small talent pool of Englishmen in the Premier League had weakened the national team. Now a study for the BBC shows the minutes played by home country players in the Premier League is lower than all major European leagues.
English footballers account for less than a third of all the minutes played in the Premier League, down from 32.25 per cent in 2007-08 to 31.8 per cent, football statisticians Opta said in the study.
In total, 60.93 per cent of minutes in the Premier League have been completed by foreign players so far this season.
"But England didn't qualify for the U.S. (World Cup) in 1994 when the percentage of British players was quite high, so I do believe that it's not only the number of foreign players in the Premier League that is making things difficult for England," former England captain Alan Shearer said. "Everyone is aware that English football is not as healthy as it should be and I'm afraid it is all going to take time."
In Spain, Spanish footballers account for 59 per cent of all minutes played while the figure for Germans in the Bundesliga is 50 per cent.
Associated Press writer Mark Rachkevych contributed to this story.
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