10 Reasons Wayne Rooney and Co. Can Help England Win Euro 2012
It's almost that time again. We are on the verge of that glorious (usually) biennial period when everyone in England starts talking up the national team ahead of a major tournament.
With just a point needed from their final Group G match in Montenegro on Friday, England look on course to qualify for next year's European Championships in Poland and Ukraine. Once a place in the draw for the finals is secured, the steadily increasing stream of stories and features in the English media claiming that Our Brave Boys can return home with the trophy will be irresistible.
Ever the one to get in on the ground floor when it comes to the latest craze, here are 10 reasons why England can end 46 years of hurt and return home from Poland and Ukraine with the Henri Delaunay Trophy next summer.
Remember, these are reasons why they can, not why they will.
1. Wayne Rooney
Rewind to two years ago, and we were in a situation quite similar to the one we have now regarding England's best player. Rooney kicked off the 2009/10 season in rip-roaring fashion, scoring seven goals in his first eight games for Manchester United.
He also scored and starred in the 5-1 destruction of Euro 2008 nemesis Croatia as England registered their eighth win out of eight qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup. Such fearsome form from the England forward raised hopes of success in South Africa to great heights. As we now know, it didn't turn out like that.
Struggling with an ankle injury sustained against Bayern Munich in April and dogged by the prospect of revelations about his private life hitting the tabloids, Rooney slipped into a funk that he would not fully emerge from for another year. His performances in South Africa were little short of abject, and his confrontational outburst down a camera lens following the drabbest of goalless draws with Algeria was not exactly the shrewdest PR move.
This time, however, things should be different. Rooney is again in stunning form, having already scored 11 goals in just 10 appearances for club and country so far this season. While he may not be able to maintain that Lionel Messi-like scoring rate throughout the campaign, this does seem to be the level at Rooney routinely operates these days.
If he can avoid another serious injury and not give the tabloids anything new to splash across their front pages, then there should be no reason why he will not take the European Championships by storm, even more so than he did in 2004.
2. Joe Hart
Just 40 minutes into England's last campaign at a major tournament, USA's Clint Dempsey scored the softest of international goals in Rustenburg when his powder-puff shot slipped through the hand of Robert Green and into the back of the net.
At least that costly error actually came at a championship. Two years previously, the uncertainty surrounding the goalkeeping situation for then manager Steve McClaren led to both first choice Paul Robinson and new kid on the block Scott Carson contributing to England not even reaching the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland.
There is a great deal of expectation on the shoulders of Joe Hart that the No. 1 shirt is no longer one that England have to worry about. The Manchester City keeper may be just 24 years old and have only won 13 senior caps, but he is already an assuring presence for both club and country.
Few tournaments—if any—have been won with a dodgy keeper between the sticks. That England have their best custodian since David Seaman currently in the side means that a key position has already been taken care of.
3. Fabio Capello
If England's disastrous World Cup campaign in South Africa last summer showed us anything, it is that you are never too old to learn.
Capello is a man who has won league titles with Real Madrid, Roma, Juventus (though later stripped in the fallout of the Calciopoli scandal) and AC Milan, while also leading the Rossoneri to the Champions League with one of the best clubs sides of the last 30 years.
Yet, as he turned 65 last year during his first ever international tournament as a manager, he showed himself up as a novice in that arena. His disciplinarian approach, so useful at keeping players focused on the job during short international breaks, only led to general dissatisfaction in the England camp and an ill-conceived player mutiny. His conservative tactics and formation were exposed at various times as both toothless and porous.
Capello did not become one of the great managers of the club game by ignoring the lessons of his mistakes, and he will surely be eager to redress the balance in Poland and Ukraine. After all, this time next year, he will have left the England job come what may, and he will not want to leave it with such a conspicuous black mark on his record.
Since the South Africa debacle, Capello has gotten his team used to playing a more fluid 4-3-3 formation and has introduced several new faces into the squad with the aim of either replacing the established figures or at least shocking them out of the complacency they had slipped into over the years.
Now two years wiser in the ways of international football, Capello could yet sign off from his highest-paid and so far least successful job on a high.
4. Lower Expectations
Never mind the joke made in the intro to this piece about the media hype surrounding England's prospects next summer; the fact is that journalists, fans and players alike will all be approaching the tournament far more cautiously than they did last time out.
In Poland and Ukraine, you can be sure there will be a lot less of the hubris of South Africa, which led to the press asking virtually no questions about the opposition, the supporters cockily chanting taunts such as "You're just a small town in Egypt" towards Algerian fans or those in the squad assuming progress through the tournament proper would be as easy as qualification.
Such humility has the potential to create a far more unified air inside the camp, as players realise that they need to count on all who have been selected for the squad, not just the small inter-club cliques that often form among international colleagues.
5. Ashley Young
One of the main beneficiaries of Capello's new-found penchant for experimenting with players previously on the fringes of the England squad since the last World Cup has been Ashley Young.
The winger made his England debut all the way back in 2007 and made sporadic appearances under Capello during the Italian's first two years in charge.
However, since South Africa, he has had much more of a run in the team and has responded by scoring his first three international goals and putting in several mach-winning performances for his country in 2011.
His successful link-up with Wayne Rooney in the white shirt of England no doubt convinced Alex Ferguson that the pair could do the same in the red of Manchester United, and both club and country have reaped the rewards.
At 26 years of age, next summer should see Young attend his first tournament as a senior international, and he is set to finally make his mark on that stage. Quite the journey for a player who did not even make Capello's provisional 30-man squad for the World Cup less than 18 months ago.
6. England Enjoy It on the Road
It may be a glorious, world-class stadium that cost £900 million to build and seats 90,000 people, but England have not exactly made Wembley a fortress of late.
Their home win over Wales last time out was their first win in five games at the national stadium, and that came against a side one place above Cape Verde in the FIFA rankings. Then again, England were fourth in said table not so long ago, so perhaps that should be taken with a pinch of salt.
By contrast, they have won all four of their matches away from home since returning from the World Cup with their tails between their legs.
Capello and several players have all admitted that perhaps the pressure of playing in front of fans packing out a huge stadium—and paying a hefty cost for the privilege, too—may be a factor in explaining why they often fail to perform at home. Equally, visiting teams will need little motivation to try their best when laying in such an illustrious setting.
Either way, they will not have such problems in Poland and Ukraine, where the number of England fans in attendance will be significantly fewer and the grounds will be far less imposing.
7. Scott Parker
Few international careers can have been as unorthodox as that of Parker. The midfielder made his England debut while still a Charlton player in November 2003 under Sven-Goran Eriksson. Eight years later, he has still only played for his country a total of eight times, and his appearance in the 3-0 win in Bulgaria last month just after joining Tottenham meant he had earned caps whilst playing for five different clubs.
Despite turning 31 later this month and his number of senior appearances still not reaching double figures, Parker has become an important part of the England set-up in the build-up to this European Championship. He offers the midfield tenacity and dynamism so often absent when Frank Lampard is in the side, his distribution can be more effective—if not more spectacular—than Steven Gerrard's, and he offers a far more mobile and adaptable defensive foil in the centre of the park than Gareth Barry.
One of the keys to success at a major tournament is having versatility in your squad. In Parker, Capello has a player who is as adept as a holding player as he is pushing further forward and has the stamina to play as a box-to-box midfielder and the intelligence to combine all of those roles.
8. The Kids Are All Right
Following the humiliating 4-1 defeat at the hands of a youthful, exuberant Germany team in their second round match in Bloemfontein, their was a huge clamour among England fans to disband the old guard and just start again with a group of young players who could play together for a decade or more.
While the notion of completely casting aside all of the senior players—who remained after all huge stars in the Premier League whatever their failings on the international stage—may have been a fanciful, knee-jerk reaction, there was clearly a need to rid of some of the complacency and world-weariness that had crept into the squad.
To that end, Capello has brought in plenty of new blood over the past year, including Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, Andy Carroll (while still a Newcastle player) and Tottenham's Kyle Walker, who is yet to make his debut.
But the majority of the freshest faces among the England squad all ply their trade together at Manchester United. Defensive duo Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, midfielder Tom Cleverley and striker Danny Welbeck have all at least been in the squad. None of them are older than 22 years old, but all of them have a season playing for the Premier League champions in which to force their respective ways onto the plane flying east next May.
9. Struggling Rivals
Spain will not win the European Championship. The reigning world and European champions will need retain their continental crown in Poland and Ukraine next year. Those are not my words, but those of the history books. No nation has ever won back-to-back European titles, although the Germans and the Soviets both came close, taking their title defences all the way the the following tournament's final.
Of course, records are there to be broken, and if any side can be the first to do so, then it is Vicente del Bosque's current team, but if the theme continues, then who else is the major threat?
France's implosion in South Africa last year was even more spectacular than England's. While they have put the pieces back together under Laurent Blanc's management and top their qualifying group, things have not all gone swimmingly for Les Bleus.
Like France, Italy were knocked out of the World Cup at the group stage and have also had to rebuild under Cesare Prandelli's leadership. The Azzurri have already confirmed their place at the tournament next year by topping a poor group, but how Prandelli will handle his first international tournament remains to be seen.
Portugal and Russia are both making hard work out of qualifying, and the former were also disappointing at the last World Cup, while the latter didn't even make it there after losing a play-off to Slovenia.
As for the Netherlands, who briefly usurped Spain at the top of the world rankings, surely they can't go two consecutive tournaments without some sort of in-fighting putting paid to their hopes of winning a tournament?
10. Anyone Can Win It
Well, perhaps to say "anyone" is a bit disingenuous, but history tells us that surprises can happen in European Championships. Pundits may be correct when they say that Euros are more difficult to win because of the higher average quality of the competitors, but that has not prevented a few unlikely names being etched onto the trophy.
In 2004, Portugal hosted the tournament and looked to have had one hand on the trophy when they faced surprise package Greece in the final. The logic was that although Otto Rehhagel's dour, defensive tactics had managed to get them this far, surely a team featuring the attacking prowess of Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Deco and Pauleta and playing on their own turf would be too much to handle. Angelos Charisteas's 57th-minute winner said otherwise.
Back in 1992, Denmark made the short journey to Sweden for the ninth instalment of the tournament despite failing to qualify. They only made it in because of the break-up of Yugoslavia made their position untenable.
Rather than simply arriving to make up the numbers, the Danes took the tournament by storm and beat world champions West Germany 2-0 in the final. John Jensen's opening goal in that game swiftly earned him a move to Arsenal, who must have imagined they were buying a goalscoring midfielder. Jensen went on to score once in 139 appearances for the Gunners.
The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union have all claimed their only major title in this competition, while Belgium and Portugal have not reached any other finals apart their respective and sole losing appearances.
The point is that the field is historically a lot more open in the Euros. When you have a history as underwhelming as England's, you need to look for all the encouragement you can get.