The weight of expectation will once again be England’s mantle as they travel to South Africa with arguably their best chance at World Cup glory in years.
Seldom has a management change produced such a persistent galvanizing effect as the appointment of Fabio Capello after England’s humiliating failure to qualify for Euro 2008. With the exacting Italian at the helm, England blazed to the top of their qualifying group over Ukraine, Belarus, Andorra, Kazakhstan and Euro 2008 bogeymen Croatia, racking up the highest goal tally in Europe and sealing their World Cup berth with two games to spare. And with the added benefit of unusually favorable conditions in a southern hemisphere winter, England enter World Cup 2010 as viable dark-horse favorites to hoist the trophy.
USA: June 12
Algeria: June 18
Slovenia: June 23
England face strong Group C opponents whose relative unfamiliarity could pose extra obstacles. First up, at the Royal Bafokeng stadium near the England camp, will be USA, led by a revitalized Landon Donovan to mount perhaps their strongest ever World Cup challenge.
Next, England take on Algeria, who overcame bitter rivals and three-successive African Nations Cup winners Egypt to book their place in South Africa. The final, decisive Group C matches take place simultaneously on June 23, when England meet surprise qualifiers Slovenia, with the result of the USA-Algeria match likely determining the first and second place finishes.
Winning this group carries particular significance: the runner-up will likely face Germany on a course that potentially leads to England’s other greatest World Cup foe, Argentina. Every point could prove vital in the quest to avoid this perilous path to the latter rounds.
England is in an uncomfortably familiar position, where the progress of players in the physio room may prove as significant as their performance on the pitch. The gruelling Premier League season has once again taken its toll on some of England’s most important players: Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand are battling niggling if minor injuries; while Ashley Cole, Aaron Lennon and Glen Johnson have serious fitness concerns after returning to action late in the season following long injury absences.
This poses particular questions at left-back, where Ashley Cole’s accustomed deputy Wayne Bridge has withdrawn his service; and right midfield, with Aaron Lennon struggling to prove fitness, and favored substitute David Beckham definitively ruled out. Capello is likely to turn to Stephen Warnock or Leighton Baines for left-back cover, with Theo Walcott and James Milner providing options on the right wing.
Star forward Wayne Rooney’s fitness will be absolutely crucial to England’s chances, as will achieving the right balance in central midfield with Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Gareth Barry, a Capello favorite whose fitness will also be a concern following a late-season ankle injury. Aston Villa’s versatile Milner could prove an invaluable squad member, deputizing across the midfield and even in defence should the need arise.
At the back, West Ham’s Robert Green will attempt to banish England’s long-time goalkeeping woes; and Capello will hope Rio Ferdinand recovers sufficient fitness to resume his imperious central pairing with John Terry.
Strengths and Weaknesses
England’s greatest strength may be down to the South African winter allowing the team to play with their accustomed pace and physicality, usually a problem in hotter, more humid Summer conditions.
Wayne Rooney, whose outstanding performances in a Manchester United side recently shorn of Cristiano Ronaldo have earned him endless plaudits and awards this season, has got to be counted among the world’s best, and represents a massive strength for England in both skill and commitment.
As evidenced in their unwavering qualifying performances, England have benefited enormously from the discipline, preparation and psychological cohesiveness instilled by Fabio Capello, a manager whose long list of honors in Italy and Spain mark him out as one the game’s finest.
But it remains to be seen whether Capello’s influence can extend to the biggest stage, where England have so often succumbed to now virtually trademark frailties: an inflexibility in dealing with the inevitable injury absences; and a psychological brittleness borne of crippling insecurity masked by unwarranted bravado in the face of stratospheric expectations.
It Would Be a Great World Cup If...
The English fans and press won’t be happy until their team recaptures the glory of 1966, and will look for validation of their hopes in the Euro 2008 triumph of Spain, another team typically portrayed as chronic under-performers. But in realistic terms, a post-Golden Generation side of unproven consistency will do well to book a semi-final appearance.
It Would Be a Disaster If...
England fail to win their group and find themselves on collision course with their two mightiest nemeses. A win over a less than typically organized Germany isn’t impossible; and nor is a result against Diego Maradona’s often chaotic Argentina, but both in succession looks too much to ask for.
The gulf between England’s seductive myth and more prosaic reality always bedevils predictions; but it has often been noted (generally in the sober light of day following the punctured hype of a tournament exit) that at core, England are a quarter-final team.
They look easily capable of reaching that stage again in South Africa; and if key players like Lampard and Rooney live up to their roles, and Capello’s stabilizing influence and tactical savvy hold steady, they should be able to go one better and make it to the final four.