• Steven Gerrard says World Cup qualifier is 'attack v defence'
• Rio Ferdinand will be pundit on match for al-Jazeera in Qatar
One thing for certain is that the Stadio Olimpico has little in common with its more established namesake in Rome. There were 736 people here for San Marino's last fixture against Moldova. England's visit should fill the two modest stands but it will still feel unusual watching a World Cup qualifier in a ground where there is nothing but trees behind the goals – and little to stop anyone who can get among the forestry to have a free view.
The team waiting to take on England could include a barman, a student, an accountant, the manager of a local fitness centre, an olive oil-maker and a left-sided midfielder who earns his living by running a shop selling lampshades. Then there are the statistics that explain why San Marino have precisely zero points when it comes to Fifa's world rankings to leave them in joint-last 207th with Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Put simply, they have won one game in their entire history, drawn three and lost the other 111, scoring 16 and conceding 465. The victory was a 1-0 giant-killing of sorts against Liechtenstein in 2004 and they have not scored in their last 21 competitive fixtures. Roy Hodgson and Steven Gerrard took turns arguing that it was "not an easy game" but, pre-match niceties aside, it actually does not get any easier in international football.
What follows in Montenegro on Tuesday is plainly the more challenging assignment and that makes it slightly surprising when Hodgson says he is "extremely loth" to take special precautions to safeguard against players missing the trip to Podgorica because of suspension. Ashley Cole is one of the four players who would be ruled out with a yellow card – Joleon Lescott, Jermain Defoe and James Milner are the others – and it would be an unnecessary gamble to risk him. Lescott's situation is slightly different because England are without so many experienced centre-halves now Gary Cahill's absence is confirmed and The Issue That Won't Go Away – otherwise known as the international career of Rio Ferdinand – has reared its head again.
Hodgson was only three questions in before there was the first attempt from a press officer to change the subject away from Ferdinand now it has transpired the player who says his individually tailored fitness schedule cannot fit in an England match will be flying to Qatar to work as a television pundit for al-Jazeera on the same match. For many in the England camp this can be filed in the you-couldn't-make-it-up category but Hodgson handled it pretty well and the questions this time had a more sympathetic tone.
Ferdinand's position has certainly been weakened by this latest development and his apparent failure to recognise that it would turn public opinion against him and blow a considerable hole in the explanation given for his withdrawal. Ferdinand will take a lot of criticism over the next few days and can no longer say all the bad decisions have been Hodgson's.
Equally some people are missing the point when it comes to the real reasons why he pulled out in the first place and, specifically, the pressure that Sir Alex Ferguson applied behind the scenes.
This needs to be reiterated given that so many people are overlooking that Ferguson told him, in no uncertain terms, that he should prioritise Manchester United's fixtures after the international break, namely a league game at Sunderland followed two days later by an FA Cup semi-final at Chelsea. After that it was always going to be hard for him to go against his club manager, knowing the general rule about what happens to players who do. Ferguson pretty much told him to wash his hands of England and, whether we like it or not, it is not difficult to work out why Ferdinand went with his manager of the last 10 years rather than the man, as he sees it, who left him out of last summer's European Championship for entirely the wrong reasons.
All that said, a player in his position surely should have realised that, if he wanted to push the line about a specially tailored fitness programme, then it would reflect badly to make a 15-hour round trip to Doha when, naturally, the clear assumption would be that he needed the time to rest. However luxurious the first-class travel, whatever benefits the warm weather at his five-star hotel, it was always going to be held against him.
England's players are pretty good, though, at ignoring these things – "it never is," Gerrard responded when one of the questions was about it not being an ideal build-up – and at least this is not a match when Ferdinand's absence should matter.
San Marino, as Hodgson said, regard a successful performance as restricting the opposition to fewer than four or five goals. Gerrard talked of it being a match with "difficult, different challenges" but it all boiled down to the fact this is about as close to a non-contest as there is. "They'll slow the game down, give stupid fouls away, get on to the referee, do anything they can to stop us scoring," said Gerrard. "These are things we're not used to. Attack versus defence, and we have the majority of the ball. All the pressure is on us."
Yet there is no point dressing it up as something it is not. England have racked up 18 goals in their three meetings against this opposition and the fact San Marino got one is still brought up now as a national embarrassment. There should be plenty of goals for Ferdinand, in his pundit's hat, to talk through.