England have no margin for error in crunch clash with Ukraine
England have their World Cup qualifying fate in their own hands as they prepare to visit Ukraine for a pivotal Group H match in Kiev but the balance will switch the home side's way if they chalk up a fifth successive group win tomorrow.
England moved to the top of the standings when they beat a poor Moldova side 4-0 at Wembley on Friday but an otherwise straightforward victory was marred by a needless booking for in-form striker Danny Welbeck, ruling him out of tomorrow's clash.
His absence could cost England dearly against Ukraine, who earned their biggest ever win by beating San Marino 9-0 on Friday to stay just one point behind England, with both teams having three matches to play. England top the group with 15 points from seven games, followed by Montenegro (15 from eight) and Ukraine (14 from seven), with Poland (fourth on 10 points) retaining an outside chance.
In the circumstances, there is little margin for error for either side and a draw will feel like a positive result for England, who finish their campaign with home games against Montenegro and Poland in October. Ukraine finish with a home match against Poland and a visit to San Marino.
The pressure on England to avoid defeat is enormous and their cause will not be helped by Welbeck's absence, especially as three other strikers – Wayne Rooney, Andy Carroll and Daniel Sturridge – are all out injured. The main scoring responsibility looks as though it will fall to Southampton striker Rickie Lambert (31), who has netted in both matches he's played for England after making his debut against Scotland last month and scoring again against Moldova.
Manager Roy Hodgson can call on the experienced Jermain Defoe, who has scored 19 times in his 54 appearances, but whoever plays in attack will rely on chances created from midfield, where Michael Carrick could return.
The Manchester United midfielder missed Friday's match but could replace Chelsea's Frank Lampard, who is in line to win his 100th cap, or Arsenal's Jack Wilshere in a trio anchored by captain Steven Gerrard.
England won 1-0 in Donetsk the last time the sides met in Ukraine during Euro 2012 and needed a late Lampard penalty to force a 1-1 draw when they played the reverse World Cup qualifier at Wembley a year ago this week.
The evergreen Lampard said that the chance to sign off his international career in Brazil was a huge "carrot". And Lampard, who began his international career against Belgium in 1999, said the 100-cap milestone would be something to cherish.
"I will be very proud if I get on the pitch because it's been a long time but it wouldn't be enjoyable to reach 100 and get the wrong result," he said. "We are well aware that this is going to be a pivotal game. If we win we have it very much in our hands, although we still have two difficult home games to come."
Lampard missed Euro 2012 through injury and when he appeared to slip down the pecking order at Chelsea his international future looked uncertain. He started against Moldova on Friday, however, and was influential in setting up England's opening goal, scored by Gerrard.
"I know this won't go on forever," said Chelsea's record goalscorer, who has notched 29 for England. "But the carrot of Brazil, a huge footballing nation, a World Cup that everyone wants to be at, I would love to take part in that, it's as simple as that."
As for Ukraine, Lampard added: "I've been very impressed with them, I think they had a bad start to the group but against us they played with a lot of talent, technical ability and a lot of pace. We weren't at our best (in the 1-1 draw at Wembley) but to not lose when you're not at your best is a good thing. We have to go there knowing they are a good team."