England's draw in Montenegro shows that it's still a long way to Rio

Maybe the Montenegro coach, Branko Brnovic, had a fair point, even if he did express it more provocatively than was necessary.

England, he had said, had been overly presumptuous in provisionally arranging friendlies for the November dates Fifa has set aside for the World Cup qualifying play-offs. The fact is that Roy Hodgson and his players may soon be double-booked.

Apologies will have to be sent to Uruguay and Germany unless England can manage what has been beyond them so far and get to grips with a moderate qualifying group. The Football Association's 150th anniversary celebrations will have to be revised. Instead there is the prospect of two matches that could either take England to Brazil via the back door or send a swarm of locusts Hodgson's way. France, now second to Spain in their qualifying group, are among possible opponents.

The friendly against Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on 2 June has already taken on a different feel bearing in mind Montenegro could move five points clear when Ukraine visit Podgorica's City Stadium five days later. The game at the Maracanã has been arranged to sample the culture, climate and facilities of the World Cup hosts. If England are not careful, it may turn out like that moment on Bullseye when the darts have landed the wrong side of the wire and the prize is wheeled out anyway. And here's what you could have won.

A negative tone, perhaps, yet this was the first time Hodgson has spoken at length about the play-offs and sometimes it is difficult to be too optimistic when England are culpable of the collective loss of control that was witnessed in that second half against Montenegro. The FA has already requested the Windsor Atlantica on Copacabana beach as its hotel for the World Cup. The training ground has been located. All the arrangements are being tied up behind the scenes. Everything is in place except one small detail: the England team's results.

Hodgson was, in theory, correct when he talked about qualification "still being in our hands", and the players all made the same point. "If we win all the games now we finish top of the group and nothing can be said," Joe Hart said. "That's the way we are going to have to do things. It's going to be tough, obviously. It's a really tough thing to qualify for a World Cup and you kind of take it a bit for granted, but that's our plan."

The problem is that England's only wins out of six matches in Group H have been against Moldova and San Marino (twice), respectively 131st and joint-last 207th in Fifa's rankings. When it has come to the more accomplished sides, all the old failings have resurfaced. As for the advantage of playing three of the last four games at Wembley, it sounds good in practice but the fact is England have won only two of their last five qualifying matches on their own ground, beating San Marino and Wales and drawing with Montenegro, Switzerland and Ukraine. It is true that opponents can find Wembley a daunting place. So, unfortunately, do England, as Fabio Capello pointed out when he talked of a team wearing "heavy shirts".

Hodgson was asked after the 1-1 draw in Podgorica whether his team now need Wembley to be at its most inspirational. "That's a very good point, but it's also a fact it's not so easy for a stadium such as Wembley to generate the kind of atmosphere we have seen here," he said.

What England really need are a side that take responsibility, pass the ball well and have the competitive courage not to wilt under pressure. Once again, England appear overly reliant on Jack Wilshere, a player who has started only one game in 21 months. Yet Wilshere alone is not going to shift this pattern of a team that lose their way almost inexplicably.

Hodgson had seemed perplexed about the way Steven Gerrard and Michael Carrick, playing with great control and balance in the opening 45 minutes, had subsequently been overwhelmed. "It's a good question. I suppose the simple answer is they're human beings, not robots. These things happen in football. It's a relevant question, probably a very good question, but I don't have a clear answer to it."

England's manager might be asking himself the same thing of several others, not least Wayne Rooney. The post-match inquisition, however, could have been worse. Nobody pointed out that the game against Poland on 15 October will be almost 40 years to the day since the infamous 1-1 draw at Wembley – Jan Tomaszewski, Brian Clough and all that – which meant no England side at the 1974 World Cup.

The problem this time is that Group H is actually a four-horse race and that, in turn, raises further complications. Poland will only be a point behind England if they win their game in hand, against Moldova on 7 June. Ukraine will still be in contention when England go there on 10 September and have the added incentive of knowing that two of their final four games are against San Marino. Hart was right when he said most people would have taken qualification for granted. That, plainly, can no longer be the case.

At least Hodgson can be encouraged by the sense that Fifa, despite saying the matter is undecided, will almost certainly seed the play-offs. That is hypothetical for now, but England would go into the top half of the draw with Portugal, Croatia and Greece as it currently stands. France would slip below the line along with Hungary, Bulgaria and Austria. Hodgson was brief and to the point. "Nobody wants to be in the play-offs," he said.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Taylor, for The Guardian on Thursday 28th March 2013 00.11 Europe/London

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