Ahead of England's opening World Cup 2014 qualification fixture in Moldova there was plenty of doom and gloom surrounding the England camp after their usual exit on penalties at the quarter-final stage of a major championship. This summer it was Italy who dispatched of the Three Lions in a shoot-out after failing to score against a dogged England side. Roy Hodgson's men got their own back in a friendly in August, but in what was a very low-key game with both sides under-strength.
So tonight heads turned to see how the nation ranked third in the FIFA world rankings would get on in their latest quest for World Cup glory. Moldova, a country with a population of barely more than 3.5 million, were always going to be making up the numbers, despite being at home. The visitors duly dished out a 5-0 thrashing to make England fans immediately start bigging up their team and their World Cup hopes. Despite the apparent formality of the result for England, this did appear a much more convincing performance than the ones seen under Steve McLaren and in Fabio Capello's last months in charge.
Roy Hodgson has become the first national manager to get fully behind Steven Gerrard and give him the permanent captain's arm-band. The rewards have been great as the Liverpool has excelled in every recent performance. The way that Gerrard and Frank Lampard played together tonight would have delighted Hodgson, especially after years of the two mid-fielders struggling to strike up a partnership. However it would have been the displays by youngsters Tom Cleverley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that would really have pleased the boss as they seemingly took apart their opponents with ease.
The former Switzerland and Finland head coach said: "Cleverley was excellent for 90 minutes and when you watch him, you understand why Sir Alex Ferguson is pleased with him. Alex had an excellent first half. He hasn't played much football, and I think even at half-time, he was tired, and we were worried about leaving him on for too long, because his 15 minutes in the second half weren't as good as his 45 in the first."
Although Hodgson was pleased with his team's blend of youth and experience and an excellent result, it is clear that this match must not be taken out of context. England want to be in a position where they can challenge for major trophies while Moldova are ranked 141st in the world and for whom any points in this qualification campaign would represent a decent result. A convincing win against a team like Moldova is not going to quash any fears that England are still a long way off where they want to be.
Captain Gerrard has insisted that England could still win in Rio and said: "We have to have that faith and keep believing. You never stop believing in football. Miracles do happen." Nevertheless the use of the word 'miracle' still suggests that he feels that this is a long way from happening with England as they are now. He echoed these thoughts: "When I speak, I'm realistic and honest. At the moment we're not one of the favourites to win the World Cup but that doesn't mean you stop believing, working hard to improve and try to learn from mistakes you have made in previous tournaments."
England will struggle to improve on their last eight exit in the Euros in two years time, but they do have some real quality in the team. First and foremost is this qualification campaign and England face a much tougher assignment against Ukraine at Wembley on Tuesday. A 1-0 win over the Eastern European team secured progress from their group in Euro 2012, although the goalscorer from that match, Wayne Rooney, is absent with an injury.
England should be able to qualify for 2014 in Rio without too many problems. Poland, Montenegro and Ukraine are all tricky fixtures, but also ones that Gerrard and co. will go into as hot favourites. It will be at the finals where Hodgson and his squad are really put under the microscope.