England can blunt Brazil
Chris Hammer believes England can hold Brazil to a draw as he previews Wednesday's international action.
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England launch the Football Association's 150th anniversary year with a prestigious friendly with Brazil on Wednesday night, hoping to prove to the nation they do have the potential to challenge at the 2014 World Cup.
Of course Roy Hodgson's men still have to qualify first but despite currently lying second in their group behind Montenegro, the Three Lions are no bigger than 1/2 in places to secure top spot.
A good performance and result against the five-times World Cup winners will obviously count for nothing in terms of booking that ticket to Brazil but it will give the squad extra confidence and belief that they should indeed be part of football's biggest ever party next year.
Unsurprisingly England head into the clash at Wembley as slight underdogs with the bookies, which makes a complete mockery of the FIFA world rankings.
If these ratings were viewed as a reliable source of judging a nation's quality then every value-seeking punter would be snapping up bet365's 23/10 about the world's sixth best team on home soil beating a side languishing down at 18th.
A disappointing quarter-final exit to Paraguay on penalties at the 2011 Copa America - a year after losing at the same stage of the World Cup - kick-started their rankings slide but the lack of competitive matches since then due to their automatic qualification for next summer's showpiece means they've continued to plummet.
Even so, there's no way you'd still class them below the likes of Switzerland, Greece, Ecuador, Ivory Coast, Croatia and Colombia - to name just six - and there won't even be many passionate England fans who think Hodgson's outfit are superior.
Brazil have won 15 of their last 21 matches since their Copa America exit while their most recent of four defeats during that run came against Argentina back in November in the second leg of the Superclasico de las Americas, which they went on to win on penalties after the aggregate score finished 3-3.
However, these results weren't enough to keep Mano Menezes in a job so this Wembley clash also marks Luiz Felipe Scolari's first game in charge of his second spell as Brazil manager.
Scolari's stock may well have crashed in England following his ill-fated spell at Chelsea back in the 2008-09 season while his subsequent jobs at Uzbekistani champions Bunyodkor and Brazilian outfit Palmeiras didn't exactly go according to plan either.
But considering he guided Brazil to glory at the 2002 World Cup and then led Portugal to the Euro 2004 final, as well as the semi-final and quarter-finals of the next two major tournaments, this is certainly the scene he knows best.
One of Scolari's first decisions was to bring Ronaldinho out of the international wilderness to add some extra experience to a squad which includes star names such as Neymar, Daniel Alves, Hulk and Chelsea trio Ramires, Oscar and David Luiz.
And although Brazil's superb record in their own conditions is one of the main reasons the bookies make them outright World Cup favourites ahead of Spain, they'll hardly view a trip to Wembley as a culture shock given how many of their players have experience of Europe.
With all this in mind, Brazil are probably worthy favourites but I expect England to run them close in a match Hodgson is taking more seriously than most of the half-hearted friendly fixtures we've all seen over the years.
He said: "I was anxious to pick a squad this time that included all of the senior players, all the ones we may be reliant upon.
"This game in particular, we hope it will show us we are on the right track and when March comes around we will be able to get good results in the qualifiers with San Marino and Montenegro."
The starting XI will therefore be far more sturdy and recognisable than the one beaten 4-2 by Sweden - or Zlatan Ibrahimovic to be precise - back in November but they'll need to show more cutting edge than they showed in the 1-1 draws with Ukraine and Poland if they're to trouble Brazil, especially if goalkeeper Julio Cesar pulls off the kind of saves he's been making at QPR.
With injuries forcing out strike duo Jermain Defoe and Daniel Sturridge, Arsenal's Theo Walcott could be pushed up to support Wayne Rooney, occupying the kind of role which he has produced such fine displays at Arsenal this season.
The 23-year-old is the Gunners' leading scorer with 18 goals so Hodgson must be tempted to hand him a chance rather than Manchester United striker Danny Welbeck.
Walcott is desperate to become a valuable member of the England set-up so if he's given the nod to start behind Rooney then Sky Bet's 7/2 for him to net anytime will be a good price.
That said, the amount of substitutions in international friendlies can make scorer bets a little risky so I'm keeping the stakes low for this one.
While a full-strength England haven't exactly thrilled the crowds in recent times, they are at least more of a well-organised unit under Hodgson and hard to break down.
The 65-year-old's only defeats have come against Italy on penalties at Euro 2012 following a battling -albeit fortuitous - goalless draw and the aforementioned clash in Stockholm when he named a largely experimental line-up.
It's perhaps fair to assume Brazil will be the entertainers on the night but if England take this as seriously as Hodgson wants them to, then the hosts grit and determination can grind out a morale-boosting draw.
Elsewhere, Gordon Strachan's reign in charge as Scotland boss is expected to start with a win against Estonia at Pittodrie - but I'm not so sure it will.
With hopes of reaching the World Cup almost over after picking up just two points from the opening four games under Craig Levein, Strachan is keen to adopt a new attacking approach for the remainder of the campaign and will use this friendly clash to put his plans into practice.
Unlike his predecessor, the former Middlesbrough boss could employ two forwards on Wednesday night and this has been met by approval from the players including new captain Scott Brown, who said: "We have sat back and let defenders come towards us, but hope we can press them high up the park and make them make mistakes."
While the Scots should claim victory, their best price of 4/7 is not exactly appealing, especially when you bare in mind they'll be playing on a rather boggy Pittodrie pitch.
Estonia are by no means opponents to fear and are seemingly out of the World Cup qualification picture themselves with one win and three defeats but are certainly no pushovers having upset the odds to reach the play-offs for a place at Euro 2012 before being brushed aside by Republic of Ireland.
Although they haven't managed to spring any surprises this time round, they did beat Poland in a friendly last August and aren't without hope of getting a draw at 3/1 against a Scotland side without Darren Fletcher, James Forrest, Gary Caldwell and Ross McCormack.
Manager Chris Coleman believes his current squad is the strongest he has had during his time in charge, which has yielded just one victory in six games.
Wayne Hennessey, Neil Taylor, Steve Morison and James Collins are among the players unavailable for this clash but Coleman is boosted by the return of Craig Bellamy from a lengthy international absence as well as midfielder Jack Collison.
Star man Gareth Bale will be expected to play a key role and the presence of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen will also give the Welsh confidence of beating an Austrian side who come into this on the back of a 3-0 defeat to the Ivory Coast.
Austria are also playing catch-up in their World Cup group having taken only four points from their double header with Kazakhstan as well as a defeat to Germany so there's no reason for Wales to feel fazed.
Moving on, Republic of Ireland could be in for a difficult night as they host Poland.
The Republic have recovered reasonably well from their disappointing early exit at Euro 2012 by winning two their opening three World Cup qualifiers but the 6-1 mauling at home to Germany and the recent friendly defeat to Greece underlines what a tough task Giovanni Trapattoni has on his hands.
The 73-year-old Italian will use this clash to give youngsters such as Robbie Brady, James McCarthy and James McClean more experience while also taking a look at Derby's Conor Sammon, who will make his debut, and possibly uncapped duo Richard Keogh and Jeff Hendrick.
Ireland were pretty toothless against Greece in Dublin last time out and I'm not convinced Sammon, who failed to score a Premier League goal for Wigan last season, is going to cause Poland too many problems.
The Poles, of course, 1-1 drew with England in their previous qualifier and they head into this encounter on the back of a 4-1 friendly win over Macedonia back in December, so the backing them to win at the Aviva Stadium does appeal.
Northern Ireland are also in action on Wednesday night as they head to Malta at odds-against prices in places to chalk up a friendly win.
But given the way they sneaked a 1-1 draw with virtually the last kick of their World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan last time out, it's hard to back them with much confidence.
That said, they also earned a shock point at Portugal but only after a bitterly disappointing draw at home to Luxembourg - so maybe another stalemate is the way to go in this one.
Malta haven't actually drawn any of their last nine but of those five defeats and four wins, none have been decided by more than two goals.