• England manager accepts direct road may off bounds
• Hodgson points out three of last four qualifiers are at Wembley
Roy Hodgson has accepted for the first time that England may have to qualify for next year's World Cup in Brazil through the play-offs as the national manager contemplates a daunting game of catch-up in Group H.
Tuesday's draw in Montenegro left Branko Brnovic's side two points clear at the top, a lead they can extend to five by beating Ukraine in Podgorica on 7 June. Hodgson, in contrast, does not oversee another competitive fixture until the visit of Moldova in September, the first of three matches at Wembley upon which his team's progress effectively hinges. Their only remaining away game, against Ukraine, will be staged on 10 September in Kiev, scene of England's Euro 2012 elimination – on penalties to Italy.
While the group could still close around the Montenegrins, realism dictates that England must consider the prospect of enduring the play-offs in November, which would force the cancellation of the friendlies pencilled in against Uruguay and Germany. Their potential opponents, based on current standings, in a seeded draw would include France. "Nobody wants to be in the play-offs but the fact is that in the World Cup qualifiers, only one team qualifies [automatically from the group]," said Hodgson. "And, in the play-offs, it's going to be a good team because in every group there are at least two good teams.
"In fact, I would suggest there are more than two good teams in some of the groups. I will worry about the play-offs when the play-offs come around. At the moment I shall focus all my attention on, first of all, the summer to try to do as good a job as possible when we go to Brazil [in June] and also when we play Ireland at home. Then I shall work even harder to focus on those four important qualifiers in September and October and if, as a result of our performances, we are second in our group, then we will worry about the team we have to face in the play-offs."
England's players and management departed Podgorica pointing to the fact three of their last four games in the group – against Moldova, Montenegro and Poland – will be at Wembley as cause for optimism, despite the reality the national team have won only two of their past five qualifying games there. Those victories were against San Marino and Wales, with Ukraine, Switzerland and Montenegro having secured draws from visits to London.
"All I can say is I know what my job is," added Hodgson. "I'm trying to do it to the best of my ability. I believe in the players and I believe we will achieve our goal. We've got an important four to five weeks in September and October, three matches at home and one difficult one away in the Ukraine, so by at least not losing in Montenegro we have kept it in our own hands. We give ourselves a chance.
"It's not just a question of our games. The league is concertinaing a little bit, as we always expected it to. Montenegro have to play Ukraine and Poland, while Ukraine and Poland have to play each other, so it's not just as simple as us against them. What we are more interested in is that we have three of the last four games at home. Of the last six games, we've played four of them away. We're a couple of points down on what we'd like to have at this stage, but we're still hanging on in there and we hope that, come mid September and October, we get the points we need to win the group."