So, it has finally arrived. With little over a week to go, the World Cup is on the horizon however, this time there is less hyperbole surrounding the tournament compared to previous years, particularly where England are concerned.
This time two years ago, England was gearing up for another mega event, the Olympics. The furore surrounding the Games was something unseen in my lifetime; never had I seen such a build up to a sporting event, not even Euro ’96. The public parading of the torch, wall to wall TV coverage and the Union Flag adorning every pub, supermarket and shop for several months was a real sight to behold. A real celebration. This build up was previously reserved for England’s jaunts to foreign soil at the World Cup and European Championships, although nowhere near the London 2012 scale. Which is perhaps why I feel a little empty where England are concerned, going into Brazil 2014.
On the road to the South Africa tournament in 2010, where England were drawn with football mediocrity of the USA, Algeria and Slovenia, expectations were high. Or at least there were expectations. It was a case of when England qualified from the group, what could they achieve? As it happened, England stuttered through the group and finished second to the USA, which pitted them against a stubborn Germany in the round of 16. A 4-1 defeat and Lampard’s disallowed goal made the headlines and England returned home with their tail between their legs.
This time around, travelling to Brazil where the air is too hot, wet, sandy and airy, and ranked outside the top 10 in the world, England have very little cause for concern in terms of letting down the nation. The build up has been low key and media coverage has been muted. Even the England songs have been dreadful and rightly overlooked. Excuses are ready. Too young, too old, building for the future, you just wait ’till we have some English players in the Premier League. More than ever before, these are fast becoming new clichés in the print media for England at major tournaments.
What does seem strange is that going into the 2010 World Cup, England were built up as genuine hopefuls, despite their qualifying campaigns for that tournament and the fast approaching World Cup being very similar. The main challenge on both occasions came from Ukraine, however when preparing for Brazil, England did not lose a game from their 10 outings and had a goal difference of +27, compared to +28 preparing for South Africa. So where has the anticipation, the ‘it’s coming home’ and the echoes of 1966 gone?
Going into Group D, it was originally seen as one of the groups of death. Greg Dyke saw into his own future and infamously was caught drawing his finger across his throat, which could have equally been directed at England or the Football League. Things do seem a lot more positive than is being presented by Roy Hodgson and the tabloid press. Italy will always be a tough test, particularly as an opening game with both European sides battling the harsh heat and humidity of northern Brazil. You wouldn’t usually fancy England to beat any major nation in a tournament, however with Italy’s ageing squad, some of the younger, more mobile players such as Sterling may be a huge asset to England.
With Uruguay stuttering past minnows Northern Ireland in a 1-0 victory in Montevideo last week and concerns over Suarez’s fitness, surely only fatigue can count against England. Chasing the ball across Italy’s 18 yard box for 90 minutes as Chiellini and Buffon play keep ball may take its toll. Lowly Costa Rica may well be eliminated by the time England face them on the 24th June, who probably wish Wanchope could pull on a shirt for three games. If England can take six points from Uruguay and Costa Rica, a place in the last 16 will be guaranteed, or perhaps two draws against Italy and Uruguay and a victory in the final game, depending on results elsewhere.
Moving into the last 16 should be well within the grasp of this England squad. Despite Hodgson being the master of understatement and regularly playing down the reliance on Rooney in the last few days, surely the England players and staff would fancy their chances against any of the teams in Group C. With Ivory Coast, Greece, Colombia and Japan lining up against each other, this could arguably be the closest group. England’s worst case scenario would see Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba facing England on the 28th June. Beatable opponents if the likes of Johnson and Gerrard can deal with the physical threat of the Ivory Coast.
It is only the Quarter Final stage where things start to look impossible for England, where they would face sides who would play England off the park. England currently can’t match Brazil or Spain and would be massive outsiders if they were to meet either of these at the Quarter Final stage. Even the most patriotic, face paint and all, would have to agree that Jagielka, Henderson and Welbeck aren’t a match for the likes of Neymar, Silva or Xavi. A slightly better scenario, although less likely, would be facing the Netherlands but again, even a Dutch side in a phase of transition, with a similar mix of experience and youth as England, would probably be too wiley for Hodgson. Van Gaal and Robben vs Hodgson and Rooney really couldn’t be much more of a mismatch in terms of flair and technical ability.
A quarter final appearance, which would match their performance in 2006 and 2002, would be a reasonable return for Roy Hodgson’s men. Despite all of the resources in English football, St George’s Park and alike, the England squad almost picks itself. There have been problem areas for England for a number of years, such as no replacement at right back since Gary Neville retired, the lack of a consistent goal scorer since Owen’s demise and an acceptance of poor quality coaching and youth development. It would be refreshing to see Hodgson line up in a similar fashion to the Peru game, with at least four attack minded players starting, however fear that come the Italy game, he will revert to the safe, damage limitation tactics that England fans have been so familiar with in major tournaments. Arguably though, if England are to succeed, it is unlikely it will be through outplaying the opposition, so would hope to see appearances from the likes of Milner and Lambert later in games and Lallana, Gerrard and Wilshere starting, to really provide some tenacity, perhaps lacking in some of the ‘flair’ players England do possess. Ultimately, England could easily have their best performance at a tournament since 1990, equalling Germany and South Korea, so maybe it’s not all doom and gloom.