World Cup 2014: England ride off in subdued style

Three lions of their shirts...
Three lions on their shirts…

It’s not easy to be optimistic about England’s chances in any major tournament. Year-after-year of inflated and unrealistic expectations, displaying no gumption when it really matters and media crucifixion when each aborted campaign ends. We may have the most “exciting” league and we may pay more for our players than any other nation, but that doesn’t translate into success. Since 1966, England have been a top eight club, a position they are struggling to hang onto. England are now a “last 16” club – if they are lucky. England have no self-appointed “golden generation” this time, although Steven Gerrard’s still hanging on.

Can you bear it?

The last Peruvian to come to London was a bear in a duffle coat. So it was good to see a healthy and good-natured turnout from Peru when England played their final home game before jetting off to pastures hot and sticky. England still had games with Ecuador and Honduras waiting from them, but first it was the men from Lima and Callao, who will not, incidentally, be lining up in Brazil this summer.

Manager Roy Hodgson had said a few days earlier that the pre-World Cup training had been so good that he wanted to “bottle” what he’d seen. Hodgson was hoping that Peru would prepare England should they meet a South American side in Brazil. They will, of course, in the form of Uruguay. Similarly, Honduras (another stay-at-home nation) can be compared to Costa Rica. Ecuador will provide the toughest test as they will be in the finals.

If England’s group is not a “group of death”, it will surely be one where they could get mortally wounded. England do not come across Uruguay very often, and when it has mattered – World Cup 1954 and 1966, they have not won, although the two countries drew 0-0 in the opening game of 1966. England’s record against Italy over the past 34 years, is not good – two wins in 11 games. Every time they have met in a truly competitive game, they’ve lost – notably the third/fourth place play-off in 1990.
As for Costa Rica, they have never met England.

Out of form guide

Since reaching the semi-finals in 1990, and launching the “Gazza generation’s” interest in football, England have gone steadily downhill. The five subsequent World Cups have yielded one non-qualification (1994), two last 16 exits (1998 and 2010) and two quarter-finals (2002 and 2006). The European Champions have scarcely been better: 1992 – group stage; 1996 –SF (as host); 2000 – group stage; 2004 – last eight; 2008 – didn’t qualify; and 2012 – last eight. In 1996, 2008 and 2012, England lost on penalties each time.

England’s declining fortunes (450x353)2010, and the European event in 2012, underlined the decline that had taken place and the result is that England go to Brazil with expectations in check. Qualification groups these days are filled to the brim with teams that have little chance of actually getting through the elimination process, so even England in their current state should still successfully negotiate these groups. Although there were a few nerves, they came through unbeaten, with six wins and four draws. That they had to rely on the last game to do just that demonstrates that England can no longer be regarded as a shoe-in.

However, take a look at recent games against Chile (0-2), Germany (0-1) and Denmark (1-0) to get a better picture of where England stand. The Peru game was another good benchmarking exercise and although England won 3-0, it was far from convincing. The first half was poor, with a limited Peru comfortably dealing with Hodgson’s side. An excellent finish by Daniel Sturridge gave them a 1-0 half-time lead, and once Gary Cahill had extended the advantage in the second half, Peru were finished. Phil Jagielka scored the third shortly after Cahill’s headed goal.

Rooney, Rooney, Rooney

He may have been in Portugal getting razor-sharp, but on the evidence of Wayne Rooney’s performance against Peru, Paul Scholes may be right when he suggests the former prodigy of English football is past his best. Rooney has not shown his worth in a major tournament for a decade and Brazil 2014 could be his last chance. But will he make Hodgson’s starting eleven?

Rooney aside, some fresher faces may get the chance to show that England are not a busted flush. Joe Hart, despite his inconsistencies last season, is still a decent keeper, and although there are doubts about Glen Johnson, Leighton Baines is now the established left back. But both are 29 years of age. Likewise, Cahill (28) and Jagielka (31) are also very experienced players, so despite the “new guard” look about the defence, we are not talking about young guns.

In midfield, this should be Gerrard’s last World Cup, and rightly so. Against Peru, he looked a bit off the pace and was clearly frustrated at times, opting for simple, defensive balls far too much. Jordan Henderson has recovered from Kenny Dalglish’s second spell at Liverpool and looks a better player under Brendan Rodgers, but is he really international class?

Adam Lallana is being treated like the next big thing after a good season with Southampton. He looked impressive at times against Peru and he’s a player that could shine in Brazil. Jack Wilshere may finally get some momentum in his career soon – since being touted as a child genius, injuries have hampered his form and he’s 22 now –  time for him to show some consistency and leadership. Ross Barkley of Everton is waiting in the wings and to some, looks a better bet. But the player who has emerged as a great prospect is Raheem Sterling of Liverpool. At just 19, and a great campaign behind him, Sterling can go on to become an England fixture. But how often have we said that, though?

Hodgson believes he has options up front, but a lot of people would doubt that. Ricky Lambert is not a World Cup player, despite his honest effort. Rooney may not play an out-and-out striker’s role. Daniel Sturridge’s progress has been remarkable since he moved from Chelsea’s bench to Liverpool’s front line. Can he do it on such a grand stage? And then there’s Danny Welbeck. He needs to score more to convince.

The squad looks light on quality, although to be fair to Hodgson’s selection, there is potential in one or two areas. Ask yourself if any of England’s squad would make it into one of the main contenders’ line-ups. The answer is probably no.

Home by the end of June?

England may have a better chance of not disappointing this time. But the problem is Uruguay and Italy. Game of the People expects England to go out at the group stage, but toexit with enough goodwill to mount a European Championship qualifying campaign. But in all probability, they will be watching the second stage on TV back at home.

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