TERRIBLE in the last World Cup in South Africa and tedious in the 2012 European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, the hope is that England will be terrific in Brazil. And if they can’t manage that, then tolerable would at least be a start.
Rarely has an England side gone into a major tournament with lower expectations, yet for all the doom and gloom that accompanied an underwhelming qualifying campaign that only really sparked into life in the last two matches, there have been enough positive signs to suggest Roy Hodgson’s men can at least exceed the more pessimistic predictions that are being levelled at them.
It is 1958 since England failed to progress from the initial group stage at a World Cup finals, and while Italy and Uruguay represent stiff competition, not to mention Costa Rica, who should not be written off lightly, there is no reason why a proud record should not be extended this month. avoiding defeat in the opening game in Manaus is imperative, but whereas Hodgson was prepared to set up his side to be difficult to break down at Euro 2012, the England boss is set to be much more expansive this time around.
Adventure should be England’s watchword as the squad is packed with mobile young attackers who will be keen to make their mark at world level. Having already axed so many of the old stagers who failed at a succession of previous tournaments, this is not the time for Hodgson to retreat back into his shell.
Defensively, his side pretty much picks itself, with a back-toform Joe Hart starting behind a back four comprised of Glen Johnson, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines.
A lack of pace in the centrehalf positions is a worry, but it should be noted that England kept a clean sheet in six of their ten qualifying games. Cahill and Jagielka’s record together is reasonably impressive, although they have rarely come up against a striker with the class of a Mario Balotelli or Luis Suarez. In Brazil, they will have to be on their mettle from the off.
They are hampered by the lack of a natural holding midfielder in front of them, something that has been a problem for the England side for the best part of a decade.
Steven Gerrard has excelled in a deep-lying role for Liverpool, but his instinct remains to attack, and England remain vulnerable to the counter-attack. That was their downfall as they were ripped apart by Germany four years ago, and Hodgson will have to ensure his players strike the right balance between defence and attack.
His preference for a 4-2-3-1 system reflects the general lack of defensive security in the side, and it will be interesting to see whether Jordan Henderson or Jack Wilshere plays alongside Gerrard. The former struggled in recent matches against Denmark and Peru, and for all his injury issues, it could well be the latter who gets the nod.
The identity of England’s wide players on Saturday remains a point of conjecture.
Raheem Sterling was superb for Liverpool last season, but lacks experience on the international stage. Adam Lallana can fill a number of roles, but doesn’t really possess a blistering turn of pace. Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain? Just back from injury, but the scorer of a superb solo goal in the Maracana last summer. Danny Welbeck? Out of sorts for much of last season, but valued by Hodgson thanks to his fine performances in the qualifying campaign. what is certain is that Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge will be playing inside whoever is selected in the wide attacking positions. Sturridge has developed into a top-class centreforward at Liverpool, while Rooney remains England’s talisman despite never having scored at a World Cup finals.
Hodgson will bedesperately hoping that changes in the next few weeks.
If Rooney fires and England keep things reasonably tight at the other end, they should be able to progress from Group D. Their second-round opponents would be drawn from Group C, which contains Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan. Suddenly, the quarter-finals would be on the horizon, and at that stage, anything would be possible.
Let’s not look too far ahead, but by the same token, let’s not be too pessimistic either. This time around, it would be wrong to say England expects. But at least we’re starting to get a little bit excited.