REALISTICALLY, it would be a great achievement for England to get out of the Group of Death at the World Cup, but does that mean we can’t at least dream of going all the way in Brazil this summer?
Roy Hodgson’s men will have to get past Euro 2012 finalists Italy and Uruguay, who are ranked seventh in the world and reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup, just to get to the second round but a young, exciting team is emerging that is capable of causing a few shocks.
So let’s get behind Roy’s boys and look at the reasons to be positive ahead of the opening game against Italy in Manaus on Saturday:
1. You CAN win with kids: Alan Hansen’s infamous comment on Match of the Day in 1995 that you can’t win anything with kids was proved emphatically wrong when a Manchester United side featuring David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs amongst other fresh-faced superstars went on to take the title. Of course that side turned out to be incredibly special, and nobody knows quite how good this England side could be yet, but the likes of Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge and Luke Shaw have shown plenty of promise since breaking into the squad and give plenty of reasons to be optimistic looking to the future. The tournament might come a little too soon for them, but a young German side lit up the 2010 World Cup in South Africa on their way to the semi-finals, so could England make a similar impact in Brazil?
2. Firepower: The Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge partnership hasn’t quite clicked yet but if it does in Brazil England would have a strike force that is the envy of most other countries, including the likes of Germany and Spain. Both enjoyed prolific seasons in the Premier League, while Danny Welbeck and Rickie Lambert also have good international goalscoring records so England possess plenty of firepower.
3. Captain Fantastic: Steven Gerrard is arguably playing the best football of his career at the age of 34 since being moved into a deep lying midfield role by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers. He’s always handled the England captaincy admirably, often in difficult circumstances. An inspirational figure, his rallying speech to his Liverpool team-mates after their 3-2 win over Man City at Anfield towards the end of last season is the kind of thing that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and such leadership qualities could help carry England far in the tournament.
4. Roy Hodgson: He may not have been the public’s first choice when the England job came up, but Hodgson has done a good job during a tough transition period, with the so-called golden generation coming to an end and a growing crop of young players coming through. He is vastly experienced in international football, makes decisions using common sense is enthusiastic, in stark contrast to Fabio Capello, a successful club manager who was out of his comfort zone in South Africa. While Hodgson has a reputation as a cautious manager, he has shown he is not afraid to take the odd gamble either.
5. The Reds factor: Liverpool may not have lifted the Premier League crown in the end, but the fact they came so close against all the odds should act as an inspiration for an England team who are not expected to go far in the World Cup. Refreshingly, that Liverpool side contained a strong core of English players and Gerrard, Glen Johnson, Jordan Henderson, Sterling and Sturridge will all be in contention to start the first game against Italy.
6. Wayne Rooney: For the first time in his career the Manchester United striker heads into a World Cup without any major injury worries, which have prevented him from making the big impact many think he is capable of in a major tournament. The build-up to this World Cup has seen a debate over whether he should even be in the side but make no mistake, Rooney remains a key player for England. He is also often at his best when he has a point to prove, just as he was at the start of last season when his Manchester United future was in doubt, so the stage could be set for him to shine.
7. Smells like team spirit: According to those in the know, the team spirit in the England squad is the best it’s been since Euro 96, when they reached the semi-finals. You can only go so far on quality alone, and this will be a key ingredient for a successful World Cup.
8. Preparation: While a lot of focus has been on England’s uninspiring draws against Ecuador and Honduras, in reality pre-World Cup friendlies are meaningless and otherwise the preparation gone as smoothly as can be remembered before a major tournament. The three games England played have served a purpose in helping players get to know each other and getting games under their belts, particularly the likes of Phil Jagielka, Rooney, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere, who were all short of match fitness, while the two games in Miami have helped England become accustomed to the heat they will experience in Brazil. It is the little touches by Hodgson that could make a big difference though, such as making the players train in warm layer clothing and hiring psychologist Steve Peters, who has worked with the successful British cycling team and snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan.