Lampard slots home the late equaliser.

by Liam McConville

The blind optimism that accompanies the beginning of any new qualifying campaign has been removed rather quickly for many of the home nations in what has been a rather difficult start to the arduous campaign to reach the 2014 World Cup.

First to Hampden Park, where the Scotland faithful were looking for a bright start with two winnable home games in what is a very challenging group. However two disappointing draws followed, the grim reality that it will be very tough to qualify from this position will be hitting hard north of the border. A 0-0 draw against Serbia wasn’t a disaster and Craig Levein was perhaps right to be defensive following the outpouring of criticism of him and his team.

Levein needed a win against Macedonia to strengthen his own position but could only muster a 1-1 draw to leave them with plenty of work to do. A vast improvement in Scotland’s traditionally dismal away from will be needed to keep qualification hopes alive beyond October. A key clash with fellow strugglers Wales is followed be a tough away trip to the exciting Belgium in what will be a crunch double header for the under-fire Levein.

Speaking of Wales, it’s been a miserable start to competitive international football for new manager Chris Coleman.  Sure the opposition was difficult, but certainly the Welsh fans would have been hoping for a lot more that a 2-0 defeat at home to Belgium. That defeat would have been disappointing but what followed was pretty humbling as Coleman’s charges were hammered 6-1 in Serbia.

That makes it five defeats out of five for Coleman and the Wales boss has only the solitary Gareth Bale goal against Serbia to show for it. The circumstances in which he took over were of course very difficult but supporters would have hoped for more following the momentum build up by the late Gary Speed. Coleman will have to act fast to try and save this campaign or else that long, long wait for Wales to reach a major tournament will be extended by at least another two years.

Another new manager who has endured a tricky start to their tenure is Northern Ireland’s Michael O’Neill. A 2-0 defeat to Fabio Capello’s Russia was to be expected, however a frustrating 1-1 draw with minnows Luxembourg was not. Dean Shiels’ first half effort was cancelled out by a late own goal as Northern Ireland failed to kill off a game that they should have won comfortably.

It will provide little comfort that Luxembourg are showing signs that they are not the whipping boys that they once were, a narrow 2-1 defeat to Portugal last week was certainly a creditable result. The glory nights of beating Spain and England at Windsor Park seem a long time ago now for a side that is danger of becoming a real minnow in European football themselves.

The Republic of Ireland came close to suffering from a Euro 2012 hangover before two late goals saw them overcome Kazakhstan. The game may well be remembered more for winger James McClean’s quickly deleted Twitter outburst expressing his frustration at not getting on the pitch. The vastly experienced Trapattoni does not suffer fools gladly but his decision to not exile McClean is perhaps recognition that he does see the Sunderland winger as an important component of his squad.

Trap has faced plenty of flak over the dismal display at the Euros and his own stubbornness over team selection. However he’ll be delighted to leave a tricky away trip with three points ahead of much tougher tests against the formidable Germans and the always strong Swedes. Writing off Trapattoni is a dangerous thing and is something that I certainly won’t be doing.

Finally to England where after the glitz of the Euros, Roy Hodgson has found out what international management is all about. A comfortable 5-0 win over Moldova was simple enough but Ukraine proved to be much more difficult opponents than most expected. England were lucky to escape with a point courtesy of a late Frank Lampard penalty. The relief around Wembley was palpable, a draw wasn’t great but an early home defeat would have been much more damaging.

Hodgson is still getting used to his players and the Ukraine game will have taught him a lot about his squad. The honeymoon period is now over for Hodgson and further slipups will not be so easily forgiven by expectant supporters and the ruthless press.

Already the long and winding road to Brazil is looking a lot tougher than many imagined. Unfortunately for some, it’ll only get tougher from here.