The Group Situation
It’s all very confusing. Lithuania beat Estonia, who beat Slovenia, who beat Switzerland, the result of which is that England and Lithuania sit clear at the top of the group on six points.
Switzerland’s struggles – no points from two games under Vladimir Petrovic – are the unexpected factor, and trying to work out what it means for England isn’t easy. On the one hand it means their most likely direct rivals to qualify are less of a threat, but on the other it means that four other sides in the group could be scrapping all the way for qualification; there may not be any of the easy games that can crop up at the end of qualifying when decent sides have nothing left to play for. The victory over Slovenia, certainly, has Estonia harbouring stronger ambitions of qualification than they entertained in the summer.
The big issue for Estonia is the fitness of Konstantin Vassiljev, who has played just 47 minutes of football since June with a knee injury.
He came on for the final quarter-hour in Thursday’s defeat to Lithuania and immediately Estonia looked a better side. He’s the man who knits together the front end of the team, linking midfield to attack, but he is also a moral leader: as one Estonian journalist put it, when he isn’t playing, there is an immediate sense of hopelessness.
Estonia did overcome that to beat Slovenia, but his role has become especially important after Magnus Pehrsson’s introduction of a 4-2-3-1 system. Given England’s great weakness is at the back of midfield, if anybody causes them problems, it’s likely to be Vassiljev – if he plays. England seemingly escaped Thursday’s win over San Marino without further injury problems and were even able to rest Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson for the second half.
The Paradox Of The Counter
The weakness of the qualifying group creates problems for England.
Although they should qualify for Euro 2016, it also means that they have little to gain from the next 18 months: every win will be seen as little more than box-ticking; every setback a disgraceful interruption to what should be serene progress. But there is also a tactical issue.
England’s strength is the pace of the team in forward areas and using that on the counter-attack. Although they dominated the game against Switzerland, it was only just after half-time when the Swiss finally committed men forward, that England broke through with a counter-attack.
The second also came with a break, as Switzerland desperately sought an equaliser. For England to utilise their greatest weapon, though, they need opponents to come on to them, which weak sides will not do from the start, and may not do even if a goal down. So the likelihood is a frustrating qualifying period that says little about England’s true abilities. Even at home to Slovenia, Estonia only had 42% of possession; it won’t be as bad as San Marino, but England are likely to find themselves regularly facing massed ranks of defenders.
READ: Iain Macintosh's 10 Worst England Matches Ever
The Estonian Surge
It may just be coincidence but in both qualifiers so far, Estonia have finished the game much more strongly than they started it. In both cases there was a specific trigger for that.
Against Slovenia, Delibor Stevanovic was sent off with 11 minutes to go and against Lithuania, Vassiljev came off the bench with 15 minutes left, but in both cases the energy of their late attacking compared to what had gone before was remarkable. Against Slovenia it brought a winner with four minutes left for Ats Purje and against Lithuania it could easily have yielded an equaliser. The lesson for England is there: if they’re a goal up with 10 minutes to go, the game isn’t won.
If Estonia do sit deep, England may end up resorting to crosses slung into the box. Often that can become predictable, but in this instance in may not be such a bad thing. The Estonia captain Ragnar Klavan is experienced and plays in the Bundesliga for Augsburg, but the suspicion is that he is rather better on the ground than in the air, which could make him vulnerable either to Wayne Rooney or, perhaps, to Rickie Lambert coming off the bench.
There is a slight issue about where the crosses will come from with the diamond, but Henderson can pull wide from the right of midfield and there’ll be an onus on Leighton Baines to get forwards from left-back.
Estonia have been defensively tight of late, scoring three and conceding five in their last five games, so there may be value in Under 2.5 goals at 2.20.
Estonia might be worth backing with +1.5 at 2.05. Lambert to score the game’s final goal at 5.20, coming off the bench to expose Klavan, might also be enticing.
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