The 2012 European Championship Finals may be more than 20 months away (to the relief of general contractors in the Ukraine) but for England, they're starting now. England fans who didn't drink enough to forget the qualification rounds for the 2008 Championships will remember that finishing behind Russia and Croatia left the team out of the finals and led to the firing of John McClaren. Ouch.
What's often forgotten is just how hard that qualifying group was. There were three of the top twenty teams in the world fighting it out for slightly less than two spots, and one of them was always going to lose out. England got revenge on Croatia during qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup (beating them twice by a combined score of 9-2), and poor Russia didn't make it there either, stunned by a last minute away goal by Slovenia during the play-off rounds. There'll be no thoughts of further retribution here, though; Croatia and Russia both received Pot 1 seedings, meaning that they could not be in England's group.
England's chances in Group G are decidedly happier than in Group F four years ago. Who are the opposition?
Switzerland: The Pot 2 team in the group and England's most likely rivals for first place in the group. Switzerland have a long history of mediocrity in Europe, failing to qualify in twelve of fifteen tournaments. They're on something of a roll now, though, qualifying in 1996, 2004, and, yes, 2008. In each of those tournaments they've failed to advance past the first round. Switzerland play a fairly dull, stodgy game that England fans will be very familiar with (on account of they themselves supporting a dull,stodgy team). Unlike England, however, Switzerland are extremely well disciplined and tight at the back, making them very easy to drop points against, even if they're unlikely to beat you. They'll never have the cutting edge they need to regularly win matches, but considering England's recent problems with patient, possession-based football, it seems unlikely that the Three Lions will take full points off the Swiss. Be on the lookout for young striker Eren Derdiyok - he's only recorded two goals in 22 caps, but one of them was against England in Wembley.
Bulgaria: Darlings of the 1994 World Cup, the Bulgarians have fallen hard and far since them, last winning a major tournament game in the group stages of Euro 96. Eastern European teams have always been extraordinarily gifted on the ball, and the new-look Bulgaria are set to combine sublime technical skills with good organisation in their bid to qualify for the Poland/Ukraine tournament. They'll do it without star striker Dimitar Berbatov, now retired from international football, but their attacking players are nothing to turn one's nose up at. Look out for Martin Petrov, who can cause havoc with his long range shooting. England will probably be out-possessed by the Bulgarians, but they should have the quality to weather the storm and smash through what is on paper a fairly flimsy defence.
Wales: If the United Kingdom had ever been able to field a combined team, Wales's finest would have had a chance to shine on the biggest stages of them all. Instead, Ryan Giggs and friends have not played in a major international tournament since 1958. While the team certainly has had its share of star players, the rest of the squad has never been good enough to make the grade. This time it's Gareth Bale who will be leading the way; Tottenham's young defender/midfielder is a budding superstar in the Premier League and will probably prove troublesome for Glen Johnson on England's right. Meanwhile Craig Bellamy will provide his usual presence up front, poking John Terry in the eye or whatever it is Bellamy likes doing. England are a much better team, but that hasn't stopped them being outplayed as of late. The Wales games have disaster written all over them.
Montenegro: Last and least, we have Montenegro, the world's newest international footballing side. Split off from Serbia in 2007, Montenegro have only played in qualifiers for one tournament, where they unsurprisingly failed to come close to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Although they're the minnows of the group, they're not the Faroe Islands or Andorra, and can boast a reasonable array of players to chose from. Expect strong organisation in the back lines, with nearly everyone behind the ball, followed by swift counter-attacks when they get the chance. Montenegro seemed primed to pull off a shock result or two, but it won't be against England unless a major disaster befalls Capello's side (i.e. Robert Green is reinstated).
Worth noting: Group G contains the highest total number of players whose names end in 'c' or 'v.' Fact.