Reputations on the line
Like the first day of exams, Roy Hodgson's week of destiny has come around all too soon. Hodgson, a fundamentally decent fellow, has had over a year to qualify for the World Cup, but like most students, he now finds himself trying to do all the work at the last minute. Typical.
Four crucial games, four golden opportunities to take a barely assailable lead in the group, have been spurned. Twice against Ukraine, once against Poland and once against Montenegro, England have fallen short. Now there is no margin for error. Poland and Montenegro must be beaten at Wembley if a dangerous play-off, or worse still, third place is to be avoided.
And yet Hodgson is in a curious position, teetering between a disaster that will cost him his job and a success that will reaffirm it. For all the anxiety of the supporters, this campaign could still end extremely well. Two 1-0 wins at Wembley, for example, will secure top spot in the group as well as preserving an extraordinary defensive record of just three goals conceded in ten games, a record matched by only by Spain and beaten only by Belgium. Even Hodgson's most enthusiastic critics, of whom there are many, couldn't begrudge him a pat on the back for that.
Up to this point, Hodgson has delivered precisely what was expected of him. After Fabio Capello's departure, the English Football Association had a straight choice between the low fidelity, smiles-on-faces management style of Harry Redknapp and the measured caution of the blazer's blazer. The character or the company man. Naturally, they opted for the man they felt they would have a degree of control over, the man who was unlikely to have any skeletons lurking in his closet.
Given that Redknapp responded to the snub by writing an autobiography that labelled the FA "clueless" and claimed that they couldn't pick an England manager to save their lives, it's unlikely we'll ever get to see what the alternative would have been like. It would certainly make for the most awkward job interview in recent times.
But back to Hodgson, there was a wonderful moment in Thursday's press conference where he encapsulated his entire ideology in one single sentence.
"The important thing is to make sure we attack well," he said uncharacteristically. "But," he added quickly, as if he'd just caught himself in time. "We must be careful. We can't have a gung-ho approach and find ourselves a goal down."
This natural distrust of adventure, this trait of pre-Gandalf Bagginsness, is what attracted the FA to Hodgson in the first place. You suspect the reason that he was appointed was not because he might exceed expectations, but because he might lower them. That after decades of approaching tournaments in the mistaken belief that they would be won, perhaps it might be better to see qualification as the real victory.
Hodgson's arrival was an acceptance that the golden generation has gone, that the talent pool is dry. That England's best hope is grind results out by playing in a style that minimises risk. A gung-ho free zone. If England secure those two 1-0 wins this week, you will find few who would question the policy.
The problem, of course, is what happens if England do not secure those two 1-0 wins. What happens if they crash out of a qualifying group which, while hardly being easy, is not as challenging as it might have been. If you're going to play it safe, you have to actually end up in a position of safety.
It's not just Hodgson who finds his reputation at stake now. It's the FA. They chose to take England down this path. It has turned out to be every bit as risky, for different reasons, as appointing Redknapp.
Where do they go if Hodgson falls short? What happens to their much vaunted plan for a home-grown future? Given the speed with which they pursued the services of Belgian-Albanian teenager Adnan Januzaj even while they were pontificating about the development of English youth, we can assume that they are already asking around for Jurgen Klopp's phone number.
Two 1-0 wins. It doesn't seem like much to ask, especially against an injury-ravaged Montenegro and a disappointing Poland. And yet so much rests on it.
Iain Macintosh is the UK Football Correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore, writer for ESPN and the co-author of "Football Manager Stole My Life" from @backpagepress. You can follow him on Twitter here.