Roy Hodgson's side got their World Cup qualifying campaign off to the perfect start in Moldova
England's road to the 2014 World Cup begins here, but according to Bobby Charlton they have no chance whatsoever of winning the damn thing. And let's face it, the old boy knows what he's talking about when it comes to winning World Cups. So that's that, then. Ah well.
But we may as well enjoy the ride anyway. Roy Hodgson's side start with a trip to the Zimbru Stadium in Chişinău, and let's be honest, they're expected to make off with all three points tonight. England might have proved themselves at Euro 2012 to be something approaching a shower, but it's all about context. England's squad contains players from current European champions Chelsea, the Premier League winners Manchester City, and perennial success stories Manchester United. The current Moldovan squad, by comparison, is culled from home sides such as Olimpia Bălţi, Sheriff Tiraspol and Dacia Chişinău, and outfits further afield like Kazakhstan's Aktobe, Hjørring of Denmark, and Simurq from the Azerbaijan Premier League. Even our very own prince of the far flung, Jonathan Wilson, would have trouble crowbarring some of those club names into his copy (although I'll not put it past him to give it a go in the next week or two, just to prove me wrong).
History is also against Moldova, who have only played England twice before, in the 1998 World Cup qualifiers, and lost both games. The first match was a 0-3 defeat at home in September 1996 to an English XI containing, for the first time, a certain Mr D Beckham. The return at Wembley a year later is mainly recalled, it says here, for the pre-match moment of silence in honour of the recently departed
Jeffrey Bernard Princess Diana, whose death in Paris led to the postponement of what would have been the third 4-3 in a row between Liverpool and Newcastle United at Anfield. That match, when eventually rearranged and played sometime in the New Year, was a boring 1-0 win for the Reds, the fixture's spell broken. Hold on, I've gone well off piste here.
Anyway, this return match at Wembley in 1997. The game ended 4-0 to England, a result which ensured Glenn Hoddle's side only needed a point in Italy to make it to France '98 (which of course they earned a month and a day later). The hero of the Moldova win, not that he'd be rewarded by Hoddle for his efforts in the long run, was Paul Gascoigne. Gazza scored one, set up Ian Wright for another, and hit the post with a header, a sublime performance. And yet English smiles were widest that night as a result of the antics of the hapless Stuart Ripley, who came on as a second-half sub and lasted all of eight minutes before pulling his hamstring, the sort of embarrassment which rarely even befalls a Sunday league player who's trotted straight from the bar having just put out his fag.
So you wouldn't put too much money on Moldova getting a result tonight, not even at the 10-1 offered by the more savvy turf accountants of this world. A draw at 4-1? Well, you never know. Football's all about dreaming, after all. "At the moment, we're not one of the favourites to win the World Cup," says England captain Steven Gerrard. "But that doesn't mean you stop believing. Miracles do happen in football. That's been proved." See?
Kick off: 7.45pm British Summer Time, 9.45pm Eastern European Summer Time (local time in Chişinău).
Moldova: Namasco, Armas, Epureanu, Bulgaru, Golovatenco, Kovalchuk, Gatcan, Onica, Suvorov, Patras, Picusciac.
Subs: Serghei Pascenco, Racu, Ovseanicov, Cebotaru, Bordiyan, Doros, Sidorenco, Alexandru Pascenco, Dedov, Ivanov, Alexeev, Negai.
England, starring Jermain Defoe and Tom Cleverley. Bold Roy! Hart, Johnson, Lescott, Terry, Baines, Milner, Lampard, Cleverley, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gerrard, Defoe.
Subs: Ruddy, Walker, Bertrand, Cahill, Carrick, Jagielka, Walcott, Sturridge, Welbeck, Butland.
Referee: Paulus van Boekel (The Netherlands)
The teams are out! Moldova in all-blue, England in white and red - without blue, which still doesn't look quite right. Then the anthems blare out. England's new one is quite a dirge, all about saving the Queen and whatnot. When did they change it from Candle In The Wind? I hope Moldova were informed, they'll feel all disoriented after last time. The Moldovan Army Band then give their own ditty a blast, and it's a really jaunty affair. The sort of bouncing rhythm ideal for competitive boozing at carouse o'clock.
And we're off! England are on the front foot almost immediately, looking for Defoe down the inside-right channel. Nothing doing yet, but there's not a minute gone of England's 2014 World Cup campaign, so let's not get frustrated yet.
2 min: PENALTY FOR ENGLAND! A low ball's played from the right by Milner. On the penalty spot, Cleverley sidefoots the ball goalwards. The ball hits Bulgaru's hand at very close range - and the referee blows for a penalty. Bulgaru had no chance of getting his hand out of the way there; it's a fairly tight decision.
3 min: GOAL!!! Moldova 0-1 England. Lampard steps up and slaps the penalty straight into the bottom left. Namasco had no chance. What a start for England!
5 min: Bulgaru was booked for his role in the penalty, which really is adding insult to injury. Johnson quickly joins him in the book for hauling down Gatcan as the midfielder looks to make some ground down the left. This referee really does need to calm down.
7 min: A corner for England down the right. From the set piece, England ping it around awhile down the right, but the possession's lost when Gerrard blooters the ball high into the stand from the wing. I think that was meant to be a cross. Back on Merseyside, Brendan Rodgers might be doing one of those little comic-book mid-air soft-shoe shuffles, pulling chunks of his hair out while doing so.
9 min: Oxlade-Chamberlain skates down the left past Bulgaru, who having been booked is in no mood to stop the diddling winger in his tracks. The Arsenal man slides a delicious low ball towards the near post. Defoe, rushing in, somehow manages to sidefoot the ball wide left. Lampard was lurking just behind, and isn't too happy at the miss. That should have been the second goal for England, who have started very well indeed.
11 min: England are knocking the ball around with extreme confidence. Moldova look very nervous. Gerrard bombs down the inside-right channel, cuts inside a wee bit, then rolls a diagonal pass rightwards and forward to Defoe, whose effort evades Namasco and is hacked behind to safety. Nothing comes from the corner, but a second goal's not far away here. "Maybe this is why Ripley pulled his hammer," suggests Rob Lowery. "Too busy stuck in the books to run about with the sporty lads. Maybe Jason Wilcox is now a human rights lawyer in Rwanda and David Batty an expert on health and safety at work? Alan Shearer as a law lord?" Now now, don't get too ridiculous. Next you'll be telling me Chris Coleman is an international football manager.
13 min: Moldova haven't given up a chance for a couple of minutes now, so things are improving for the hosts. "I enjoyed Chisinau as a city," begins Gary Naylor, the nearest the MBMs have to a Peter Ustinov style wit and raconteur. "Just to the north of the capital of Moldova at Cricova, a disused quarry's miles of tunnels are used for an underground winery making some extremely acceptable whites and reds. As we twisted and turned in a buggy hard up against rocky walls, I was reminded of the mines of Mars in Total Recall. But I didn't see Kuato."
14 min: That respite didn't last long. Milner gets to the byline down the right. He stands one up into the centre. Namasco punches clear, but not particularly convincingly. Oxlade-Chamerlain cycles a shot from the edge of the area towards the right-hand side of goal; the keeper does well to regain his composure and parry the ball clear.
16 min: England's two stars so far are Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cleverley. They're everywhere, and constantly looking for the pretty triangles. They execute a couple down the inside left, the former nearly breaking clear into the area, but Epureanu is on hand to skelp the ball clear. "The great Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin once told me (OK, not personally, I was part of an audience) that he produced his best writing when he wrote about what he knew and did lots of research," writes Simon McMahon. I'm sensing the mother of all insults. You've a fair idea what's coming, haven't you? "I don't know why, but your line about Sunday league players trotting from bar to pitch having just put out their fag reminded me of this. Come to think of it, he might actually have said, 'write about what you don't know, and don't do any research'. Works either way as far as live commentaries are concerned."
18 min: Hello! This has given the crowd something to cheer about. In the middle of the English half, Patras turns through 360 degrees, like a dog preparing for its nap, but then hits a long-distance riser towards the top-left corner. The shot seems to shiver as it flies along its path, like it's making its way through a heat haze, but sails just wide left of the target. Hart had that covered, but he was at full scamper, if not quite full stretch.
20 min: Patras's effort has given the home side a wee bit of confidence, and they spend a couple of minutes stroking it around the middle. Patras himself is in the heart of the session; he of all the Moldova XI looks the most up for the challenge. "Hard to get excited for this one isn't it?" asks Brian Russell. "Unglamorous opponents hailing from a small beleaguered country. But that's enough about Moldova's difficulties in getting up for it."
23 min: Baines goes on a ramble down the inside-left channel, and is stopped in his tracks by Epureanu, who smothers wonderfully at his feet. Thing is, Epureanu's a centre back, and we're 25 yards from goal. That's a free kick - and it's a set piece hit by Gerrard, who launches a screamer towards the top right. The ball rises a tad too high for English tastes, and into the stand.
26 min: Gatcan sails in from the left, twisting and turning, and unleashes a seeker towards the bottom right. Terry sticks a leg out to deflect the ball out for a corner on the right. Suvorov sends a zinger into the area, which requires smart defending by Gerrard, who heads clear. The ball's soon coming back at England, Epureanu having a dig from a position wide on the left. Hart is behind it all the way. This is much better from Moldova.
29 min: GOAL!!! Moldova 0-2 England. Namasco may have designs on joining the circus. Nothing wrong with that, but there's a time and place to audition. Johnson has a whack from distance after coming in from the right. The keeper should snaffle, but he parries in a panic, and then is forced to hack clear under pressure from Defoe. From the resulting throw on the left, the ball's shuttled back to Johnson down the inside-right. The England full-back curls a gorgeous ball onto the penalty spot, where Lampard rushes in and guides a header into the right-hand side of goal. That was very simple, but very pretty too.
30 min: England have their tails up now, and no wonder. Cleverley sends a low shot towards the bottom-left corner. It looks at first glance like the ball clips the post and goes out, but the keeper might have got a finger to that. Either way, England don't get any corner-based joy as a result. "You make the point that Gary Naylor has the wit and raconteur skills of
Peter Ustinov," writes Mike Wilner. "Is that you being polite, or are you also suggesting that Mr Naylor carries a 25-stone label like Mr Ustinov? Remember - nobody's ever seen the guy, or heard anything other than his sharp MBM postings." I'm saying nothing. Other than Gary's nickname is The Whippet. And "he" is the pseudonym for a lycra-clad 18-year-old ballerina.
32 min: GOAL!!! Moldova 0-3 England. Namasco's pretensions to a career in the performing arts come to the fore again. Oxlade-Chamberlain dances in from the right, draws the Moldovan defence, then slides a ball down the inside-right for Defoe. The striker, in the area, takes a first-time shot towards the bottom-right corner. It's a decent effort, but one which should be fielded by the keeper. It isn't, though, the ball going straight through the keeper's hands. Oh dear.
35 min: Oxlade-Chamberlain goes on a determined skedaddle down the left. He's so close to breaking through, but is clipped by Bulgaru, who is really pushing his luck. The referee, perhaps mindful that his booking for the penalty was a bit much, lets play go on. Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn't complain too much, but then look at the scoreline.
37 min: Baines bulgarus the ball, hit against him from close range, with his hand down the right. Free kick. Suvorov, whose dead-ball skills are very impressive, teases a ball to the far post where Picusciac, six yards out, heads clumsily over. I'm not sure Hart would have got to an on-target header there.
40 min: A bit more space for Defoe down the inside-right. He gets a shot away, but it's blocked by Armas. England are certainly looking to fill their boots here. "I've met Gary Naylor," says Phil Sawyer. "This is what he looks like." Ah the simple joy of the in-joke. I wonder how many readers I'm losing the Guardian by the minute?
42 min: Defoe has been lively. He turns down the right and sends a walloping drive just over the bar. And maybe a bit wide left too. Gerrard has the heat on as a result of Defoe's hot-headed lack of accuracy, which is a brazen show and no mistake.
45 min: Baines concedes another free kick. Suvorov curls it in from a deep position on the right. Hart comes out to punch, but slices it behind him and out to the left for a corner. From which Picusciac guides a header just wide right. That's a decent effort. "Is Suvorov related to Field Marshal Prince Aleksandr Vasilyevich Suvorov, who never lost a battle?" wonders Paul Griffin. "That's what I call a midfield general." Every day's a school day with Guardian Sport, a real learning experience. Unless you want to learn about the actual football, of course, but you can't ask for everything.
HALF TIME: Moldova 0-3 England. And that's the end of a very satisfactory half for the travelling English team. A very satisfactory half indeed. Roy Hodgson positively bounds over the turf as he makes his way to the changing rooms. The second 45 minutes could seem like quite a while for the home side, although in fairness they - and Suvorov in particular - have given England a couple of mildly scary moments.
HALF-TIME ENGLAND-WORLD-CUP-BASED ENTERTAINMENT: An old favourite...
"Look in at the local." It's Friday night: the local's where we'd all rather be. Look in at the local! I wonder what slogan we could use to encourage readers to experience the joys of the Guardian MBM? Look into the abyss?
And we're off again! A change for England, Michael Carrick coming on for the captain Steven Gerrard. Roy Hodgson doing his old club Liverpool a favour there. And here's a very strange one by Moldova: Suvorov, excellent in the first half, is replaced by Dedov.
46 min: Johnson scampers down the right. He's playing very well. He reaches the byline and cuts the ball back to the superlative Cleverley - the Basingstoke-born Cleverley, let the records note - who, level with the right-hand post, hits a first-time half-volley over the bar.
47 min: "Johnson ... is playing very well." So then, a minute later, he nearly lets Picusciac in with a hilariously poor header back towards Hart. The header, weak and aimless, drops on the striker's chest, but the Moldovan can only waft an awful effort wide right from the edge of the area. I'll keep quiet from now on.
50 min: There's not quite the urgency from England in this half as of yet, but can you blame them? "Woof, 3-0 and it's only half time!" yahoos Neale Redington. "Is it too early to declare England the winners of WC2014?" You may as well enjoy yourself while the going's good. It's all downhill from here, that's how it usually works in football. Unless England score a few more in the second half, in which case it's a little bit uphill first, leaving everyone further to plummet back down dale.
53 min: Oxlade-Chamberlain looks to create something down the inside left. He's never quite in control of the ball, but nevertheless nearly breaks through. Eventually Armas gets fed up of his nonsense, and pelts the ball back at ludicrous speed towards the keeper himself. Namasco skies a clearance out of play. England are soon coming back at Moldova, but going nowhere in particular at the moment. "Don't worry Scott, it's a Friday night and a meaningless international friendly (isn't it?)," writes Robin Hazlehurst of my 40-minute reader-shedding worries. "You don't have any readers to lose, or at least none that aren't in some way lost already. And both of us get the in-jokes."
55 min: Some sloppy play here by England. Gatcan has a wallop from the edge of the area. His effort is deflected and nearly lands at the feet of Picusciac. Lescott mops up, then slides a loose pass out right for Covaluciuc - who had started off the whole Moldovan move with a burst down the middle. But he ends it as well, miscontrolling and allowing Lescott to sashay away with the ball, clearing up his own mess.
58 min: A corner for England down the right after some determined work by Milner. Lampard sends it in. Namasco punches clear. He's slapped in the back of the head by Terry, and play is stopped. "I remember 1997 as though it was yesterday," sighs Simon McMahon, 83. "The year of New Labour. But it wasn't all bad. I got married in April on Grand National Day (a Monday, after an IRA bomb threat stopped the race on Saturday), OK Computer was released, we had Seve at Valderrama, the UK won Eurovision and Scotland qualified for the World Cup Finals. Almost made having to suffer an Elton John song every 10 minutes bearable."
59 min: Walcott replaces Oxlade-Chamberlain. It's like for like, except it's not.
60 min: Baines is stopped in his tracks down the left, level with the edge of the area. Free kick. The ball's swung in, at which point there's some frantic pinball in the area, in the immediate post-pulling-the-plunger style. Eventually the ball's swiped clear, and suddenly Dedov is running into acres down the inside-right channel and into the England half! There's no pace on display, though, and a combination of Lescott, Terry and Carrick are soon sorting out the bother. The crowd enjoyed that little burst, anti-climactic though it was.
63 min: A lull, which is nice. To be honest, this whole half has been one long lull up to this point. England have absolutely no obligation to do anything other than see this match out, although fattening up the goals-for column won't do any harm of course.
65 min: Johnson drops a shoulder and makes space down the right, winning yet another corner. Lampard takes. It's cleared, but shuttled out wide right again, allowing Lampard a second opportunity to cause trouble. He slides a low ball through the area towards the far post, where Cleverley meets it with the side of this foot, eight yards out. The effort flies wide left, but not by that much. Cleverley has been excellent tonight, the future of the England and Manchester United midfields I'll be bound.
68 min: England make their final change of the evening, replacing Defoe with Welbeck.
71 min: England really have taken the foot off the gas. Moldova are taking the opportunity to clip it round in the centre of the park, albeit to little overall effect. "I was at the Moldova v Wales game in '94 as I was working in Chisinau at the time," begins Rich Miles. "I was in the home end and noted that the local swearing wasn't grammatically correct. In my first and so far only successful attempt at leading a football chant, I soon had the home crowd swearing in a way that the Queen would have found acceptable. If she swore. It must have worked as Moldova won 3-2." The Queen? The Queen Mum would have probably liked it. She loved the odd wee eff and jeff, while knocking back a couple of tin of Tennents. So they say.
74 min: GOAL!!! Moldova 0-4 England. Walcott makes good down the inside right. He slides the ball left to Cleverley, just inside the box in space. Cleverley should score, but faffs about. Welbeck, on the edge of the area, takes over, but is closed down. He slides the ball out right to Walcott, who thinks about shooting, but lays it off to Milner, who smashes the ball into the bottom left from the edge of the box. Great play from England, although the Moldovans were all over the show there, running this way and that like sprites in a ZX Spectrum platform game that's crashed.
76 min: Picusciac is replaced by Sidorenco. "If it's memories of 1997 we're talking about, I give you England's demolition of Australia at Edgbaston," chirps Phil Sawyer. "Gough and Caddick running through the Aussies. Hussain and Thorpe batting like invincibles. Never has Hope paraded herself so brazenly only for Despair to swiftly resume her rightful place. This is the OBO, isn't it?"
79 min: Golovatenco smooths down the left and reaches the byline, but his looping ball to the near post is claimed by Hart.
82 min: A corner for Moldova down the right. There's quite a desperate scramble, involving a couple of half-arsed clearing headers from Terry. Onica has a slap from the edge of the area, but it's deflected wide right. Another corner, from which Patras takes a dig after cutting in from the right wing. Hart snaffles a low, bouncing ball at the near post. He's had next to nothing to do, the England keeper, but when called upon he's generally mopped up without fuss.
83 min: GOAL!!! Moldova 0-5 England. A free kick for England, 25 yards out, just to the right of goal. Baines cracks it straight at the wall. The ball takes a flyer off the far edge of the left shoulder of Gatcan - if he was wearing cinema commissionaires's epaulettes, it'd have fluffed the tassels - and spoons into the left-hand corner of the goal, with Namasco totally wrong-footed. A total fluke. Baines celebrates the goal, though I'd like to check if his initial shot was on target.
86 min: Walcott has a whack, cutting in from the left. It's easily gathered by Namasco, which is something we haven't been able to say too often tonight.
89 min: Terry marches off down the tunnel with a face on. He's not been sent off, he's injured. Some issue with mobility or other, writes Dr Murray. Anyway, that ad slogan we were after at half time: "Guardian live commentaries. Abusing, confusing and losing readers since 2002." Our marketing department will be invoicing Simon McMahon immediately after the game.
90 min: Walcott looks to skate clear down the middle on a solo charge. Welbeck was in acres screaming for a pass, but it was never coming. Moldova mop up.
FULL TIME: Moldova 0-5 England. There are two added minutes, and that is that. England have played very well here tonight, especially during the opening exchanges, and have been rewarded with a result that gives them the necessary three points, as well as a healthy boost to the goal-difference column. Job well done. And so we finish tonight's MBM with a match report from the future, courtesy of Fraser Thomas...
Estradiol Mineirão, Belo Horizonte
A campaign which began with such promise on a balmy night in Chişinău almost two years ago ended yet again with a heartache quarter-final defeat on penalties against supposedly inferior opposition. (continues...)