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England begin the long and winding road to Rio

Friday, 7 September 2012 - 5:10pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

Hodgson quick to rebuff Moldova's 'long-ball' jibe. FA raises concerns over state of the Zimbru pitch.

England embark on another World Cup journey on Friday, which will probably fizzle out with a missed penalty plopping apologetically into the Amazon, but the manager and players continue to travel hopefully, continue to believe they can end the years of hurt that lengthen like scornful shadows.

Roy Hodgson and his captain Steven Gerrard are admirable football men, passionately committed to the cause of St George, and they are determined to steer the team through a potentially awkward qualifying campaign and reach Brazil 2014. Ambushes lie in wait across Europe, possibly even here amid the impassioned 9,000 Moldovan fans, the patchy goalmouths and the barbs of local centre halves.

A visit to the Moldovan training camp hidden in a forest outside Chisinau found their players respectful of Gerrard and company, but critical of their style. "The English national team is not like the Spanish who play tiki-taka,'' said the centre half, Igor Armas. "They play long balls. They play good football in the air. It will be very important to win the battles in the air." When Armas's "long-ball" verdict was relayed to Gerrard five hours later in a ballroom of a downtown Chisinau hotel, the England captain shrugged.

"We scored off a few of them, didn't we?" said the midfielder, recalling past direct attacks, including his delivery to Andy Carroll that caught out Sweden at Euro 2012.

Gerrard was then asked whether England would miss the hamstrung Carroll, a question laden with poignancy for the Liverpool leader.

"He's a different option," said Gerrard, "you can go direct when he's in the team. You saw he caused mayhem for West Ham against Fulham."

Hodgson was even more sanguine about the Moldovan perspective. "I'm not going to respond to Moldovan criticism now," said Hodgson. "They can think whatever they like about our game and then we'll see what happens tomorrow night.

"You play a type of football that suits your players. We don't have a conventional centre-forward here so we have to play to our strengths: play to people's feet, get the ball into midfield, not resorting to long-ball tactics."

In last month's encouraging friendly win over Italy, England mixed up their styles more, going long and short, keeping the ball as well as counterattacking quickly. A more cerebral, varied approach will make England more of a force.

Hodgson's side should possess more than enough power to defeat Armas and his little-known colleagues, who are ranked 48th out of Uefa's 53 nations and who are on a lottery-ticket bonus of pounds 2,500 to beat England or pounds 1,000 to draw. In a city where ATMs offer a minimum withdrawal of pounds 1, these are substantial incentives.

Even a pitch patchy in parts, especially in one six-yard box, should not trip up England. The grass at the Zimbru Stadium was still inspected closely by Gary Neville, Ray Lewington, Dave Watson and Sir Trevor Brooking at training last night. Neville noted that it was certainly not as bad as on England's last visit to Chisinau in 1996, at the now-demolished Republic Stadium, when the pitch was so ropy that David Seaman kept goal in tracksuit bottoms.

The Football Association has still requested that the Moldovan FA cuts and waters the Zimbru pitch this morning. "The general consensus is that it's OK apart from isolated areas,'' said the FA.

Sometimes it is the talk about an issue that becomes a bigger problem than the issue itself. Seriously. It is grass, it is the same for both teams and, as the Moldovans point out, England are hardly tiki-taka turf obsessives.

England's footballers are so used to five-star facilities that it is sometimes good to take them out of their comfort zone. In 1996 here, the Under-21s' hotel had no hot water, and the seniors' beds needed lengthening to accommodate Gary Pallister and the taller players.

Chisinau has improved markedly, moving further away from the yoke of Soviet rule, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office still advise fans that "it is useful to carry a small torch after dark as street lighting is poor".

Without or without flashlights, 1,000 England fans have voyaged here. Such is the immense local interest they could have sold out the 10,000-seater Zimbru Stadium 10 times over, according to the Moldovan FA.

For all England's failure since 1966, they remain international boxoffice. The glamour-zone that is the Premier League and England's status as the game's motherland is an intoxicating combination.

Hodgson understood the expectation, both abroad and especially, inevitably, intensely at home.

"A match involving England interests so many in the country and you feel that responsibility," he said.

"We've an experienced group of players, some up towards 100 caps, so they don't need reminding there are plenty of banana skins out there."

He will continue to rely on the thirtysomething generation, although Danny Welbeck, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kyle Walker keep pushing to oust the old guard. He knows his three midfield big-hitters, Gerrard, Lampard and Michael Carrick will be 34, 36 and 33 respectively in Brazil.

"Am I concerned? No. There have been a lot of World Cups when people of 35, 36 have made a fantastic impact." At the last Euros, the 33-year-old Andrea Pirlo certainly ran rings around England.

Before setting off for training, Hodgson had words of support for an absent friend, for Wayne Rooney, who is recovering from a leg injury and criticism of his fitness.

"I'd dispute the fact he wasn't fit in the Euros," said Hodgson. "He worked very hard. We're talking about a star. When a star maybe doesn't reach the level expected of him, criticism follows. I have no reason to believe he won't come back fit and strong and anxious to prove his critics wrong."

England will need all their talent if they are to journey far along the road to the Maracana.

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