Soccer

1st place at stake as England heads to Ukraine

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England will look to overcome a striker shortage and shrug off bleak pronouncements about the state of its national game by beating Ukraine on Tuesday to take a giant stride toward the 2014 World Cup.

Automatic qualification for finishing first in Group H is up for grabs, with England leading on goal difference over Montenegro and one point clear of third-place Ukraine with three matches left.

The English would be OK with a draw in Kiev, which would keep the destiny of the group in their hands ahead of home matches against Montenegro and Poland in October.

A victory, however, would make a huge statement after recent comments by the new chairman of the Football Association, Greg Dyke, that English football is a ''tanker that needs turning'' and that nobody ''realistically'' thinks England will win next year's World Cup in Brazil.

''I think if we can fly back with three points then we're in a very strong position to go through,'' said England midfielder Frank Lampard, who will start the match for his 100th appearance for his country.

Being without its three leading strikers - Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge (both injured) and Danny Welbeck (suspended) - isn't the only reason why England will find it tough in the Ukrainian capital, though.

Ukraine has rediscovered its best form in recent months, following up a 4-0 win at then-group leader Montenegro in June with a national-record 9-0 trouncing of San Marino on Friday. The hosts are also still hurting from an unlucky 1-0 loss to England in Donetsk in last year's European Championship, when they were denied a legitimate goal after the ball crossed the line before being cleared by John Terry.

''Our team doesn't have the big names that England has, but we (still) have good players,'' Ukraine captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk said. ''The thing is, such stars as Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole have achieved success in their clubs but for some reason or other can't attain the same level of success with their national team.

''England has players known to the entire European continent, but Ukraine is better.''

One player who isn't so well known on the global stage is Rickie Lambert, who will nevertheless lead the forward line for England again on Tuesday.

The Southampton striker has risen from obscurity to play a starring role for Roy Hodgson's side, scoring the winner on debut with his first touch as a substitute in a 3-2 victory over Scotland last month and then adding another goal - plus two assists - in the 4-0 win over Moldova on Friday.

At 31, Lambert is a late developer but he is making up for lost time. This will be the first competitive match outside England in his journeyman career.

''You are talking about a very mature person who has seen all that football has to offer,'' Hodgson said. ''He has also seen the fact that if you are not in football, what life has to offer is maybe not as good comparably.''

Hodgson is renowned for being a cautious manager so the temptation may be to set his team out not to lose the match. Who he chooses to replace Welbeck on the left wing will be telling - will it be the more defensive-minded James Milner or a more out-and-out winger in Ashley Young or even uncapped Andros Townsend?

Otherwise, England will be unchanged from the team that started against Moldova, with Lampard becoming the country's eighth player to reach 100 caps. There will be two other centurions in the team - captain Steven Gerrard and left back Ashley Cole, who will both be making their 105th caps.

''I lost on my 100th cap so hopefully it can be different for Frank and he can go away with fond memories,'' Gerrard said Monday. ''This is going to be our last crack at doing well at a World Cup and hopefully that's infectious for the group and the young lads can see how much we want it and feed off that.''

Ukraine coach Mykhailo Fomenko, a wily strategist who has won four straight games since taking over from Oleh Blokhin in December, has no fresh injury problems and has to choose between in-form pair Marco Devic and Roman Zozulya for the lone-striker berth.

''England is very strong, it's a well-known European team,'' Fomenko said Monday. ''It's not only the match of my life, but others as well.''

Elsewhere in the group, Poland visits San Marino seeking a win to keep its qualification hopes alive. The fourth-place Poles are five points behind the leaders and must still play England and Ukraine away. Montenegro has a night off after playing a game more than its rivals.

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Associated Press writer Mark Rachkevych contributed to this report.

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