AFTER landing in Brazil over the weekend, the countdown has officially begun ahead of England’s 2014 World Cup opener against Italy in Manaus on Saturday night. Sports Writer Steph Clark analyses what we have learned from their three warm-up games and the questions that Roy Hodgson faces when it comes to his final team selection
THERE was a collective sigh of relief from everyone associated with England on Saturday night.
Not only had they managed to overcome an unwanted delay to their final dress rehearsal because of a near apocalyptic Miami storm, Roy Hodgson’s men also came through unscathed despite Honduras’ best attempts to put several players on the treatment table.
Now, having arrived safe and sound at their base in Rio de Janeiro, all that is left for the England boss to do is finalise his starting XI for Saturday. Barring any last minute hiccups, of course.
There has been plenty for Hodgson to take from the Three Lions’ warm-up games against Peru, Ecuador and Honduras and most of it good, but although the overall make-up of his side appears clear, there are still a few issues that will have to be addressed over the coming days.
For the players, it is all about acclimatising to the humid conditions and settling into the surroundings they will call home for the next few weeks, while making sure they keep things ticking over ahead of the big kick-off. But for Hodgson, it is about making those big decisions that come with the responsibility of leading England into a major tournament, the ones he can ill-afford to get wrong.
What has been evident from all three warm-up games is that Hodgson’s front four, regardless of who plays, has the pace and guile England teams have lacked in previous tournaments.
Instead of relying solely on Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney to pull the strings, England have a myriad of attacking players capable of producing. Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and even Jordan Henderson from a deep-lying position have all demonstrated that over the past ten days.
On Saturday, there was evidence of the kind of link-up play that could really devastate teams. The problem on this occasion was finishing those moves off and England will have to display more conviction in front of goal.
Honduras presented a similar test to what England can expect from Costs Rica in their final group game in Belo Horizonte. They will be physical and they will look to frustrate. For all that England dominated inside the Sun Life Stadium, they could not find a breakthrough and that is a worry especially if they end up replying on victory to see them through against Costa Rica.
In Joe Hart, Leighton Baines, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Glenn Johnson, Hodgson has a back five that all but picks itself. In front of that backline, Henderson has done more than enough to justify his position alongside Gerrard with the only question mark coming in the make-up of Hodgson’s front four.
Sturridge will spearhead that attack, but who plays in the three behind is up for debate. Wayne Rooney’s performances have hardly set the world on fire and from the outside he is in danger of losing his place, but it remains to be seen whether Hodgson is ready to take a gamble and leave out England’s most talented player over the last decade.
Although he seems to underwhelm a lot of people, Hodgson is a big fan of Danny Welbeck and it is safe to assume he will also take his place in the starting XI against Italy.
The remaining two places could go to any of Rooney, Lallana, Sterling and Barkley and with the latter two arguably England’s most impressive performers in their warm-up games, there have been calls for them to start.
Sterling was forced to sit out the Honduras draw after his red card against Ecuador, but Barkley put his name in the frame once again with a more than accomplished 45 minutes after replacing an out-of-sorts Rooney.
However, the feeling is that Hodgson is likely to play the team that started against Peru, meaning the Manchester United man and Lallana are selected, leaving Sterling and Barkley to come off the bench and exploit tiring opposition legs.
A plan that could work in some situations, but as we found against Honduras it doesn’t always come off when you’re trying to penetrate a packed defence in the latter stages of a game.
Barkley’s displays have led to heightened calls that he should start and there is no denying that he could really shine on the big stage. Nothing seems to faze the 20-year-old Liverpool-born midfielder, as is also the case with Sterling, but provided England come through the group stage, Hodgson could unleash the pair later on to give his side a different dimension and give the opposition a new threat to deal with.
While England’s preparations have been largely positive – their group opponents will have picked up on a few areas of weakness – particularly down the right.
While Glen Johnson offers an outlet going forward, he looks susceptible when players run at him and he has shown a degree of clumsiness that could be exposed when England face the front lines of Uruguay and Italy.
As the only senior natural right-back in the squad, the Liverpool defender will definitely start, but it means Hodgson will have to pay more attention to who plays ahead of him in order to ensure England are watertight.