England will be up against some familiar opposition in the group stages, with Costa Rica completing the quartet. Roy Hodgson’s men face Italy in the first game, a repeat of the quarter-final match in Euro 2012, and with three teams looking to the two qualifying spots, Hodgson will need some sort of positive result against Cesare Prandelli’s side. The Italians boast former Manchester City hotshot Mario Balotelli, ex-Liverpool flop Alberto Aquilani and Andrea Pirlo – the man who dictated that Euro 2012 quarter-final. Oscar Tabarez and Uruguay are next in line for England, who can boast Premier League top scorer Luis Suarez in their ranks, ex-Manchester United forward Diego Forlan, West Bromwich Albion’s Diego Lugano and Southampton’s Gaston Ramirez. England’s first match against Italy might be important for confidence, but their second against Uruguay might be crucial for their qualification hopes. Hodgson’s side end their group stage against Costa Rica, but even though England’s supporters can only recognise Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, will provide stern opposition and will look to scupper English hopes of qualification.
One main positive for Hodgson will be the lack of expectation from the notorious English media this time around, with supporters’ hopes at an all-time low. The manager has brought a relatively young, hard-working and hungry squad to Brazil, and their desire to prove themselves could work in England’s favour. Hodgson can also build his first eleven around a core of Liverpool players who played such exciting football last season and came so close to an unexpected first Premier League title. Club and country skipper Steven Gerrard will sit in front of a back four containing Glen Johnson, while Jordan Henderson will support his captain in midfield, with Daniel Sturridge leading the line and Raheem Sterling the wildcard.
On the pitch, England’s main strong point would probably be their young yet unproven attacking players. Sturridge has emerged as England’s main striker, after being the highest-scoring English player in the Premier League and ending up only second to his club-mate Suarez on the overall goalscoring charts. Rickie Lambert had a productive season with Southampton too, and looks to be a good option off the bench. Lambert’s club captain Adam Lallana is relatively new to the international scene, but his form for the Saints as well as his overall technical ability will be very useful for Hodgson. 19 year old Sterling has pace in abundance and is not afraid to run at defenders. Along with fellow youngster Ross Barkley, they will be given more freedom and Hodgson will hope they will be able to express themselves.
Once the ‘Golden Boy’ of English football, Wayne Rooney is now becoming more of an hindrance for Hodgson. At this moment, Rooney is still arguably England’s best and most gifted player, one that any English manager would built their side around. Hodgson is no different, but Rooney’s indifferent form and on the back of a turbulent season with his club side Manchester United, Rooney may not be at the peak of his powers. By forcing an off-colour player into the side, Hodgson could be holding England back. However, if Hodgson leaves Rooney on the bench, criticism will fly in from every direction should England not qualify for the round of 16.
There is also a lack of cover for Gerrard. With the deep lying midfield role so vital to international football these days, an injury to Gerrard could severely impact England’s chances. The versatile Phil Jones could fill that position, but he has neither the finesse nor the passing ability. Frank Lampard has those qualities, but he has rarely played that position at Chelsea without a true defensive midfielder beside him, like Jon Obi Mikel or Nemanja Matic. Similar to the draw against Ecuador, Hodgson will likely line-up two central midfielders, in that case Jack Wilshere alongside Lampard, instead of just one holding midfielder. This would deprive England of one more attacking player.
Wild Card: Raheem SterlingWhether off the bench or right from the get go, Sterling has the potential to light up this tournament, like how he did for Liverpool in the season just past. He has proven his positional versatility as well as his ability on the ball. Coupled with that raw pace, Sterling can prove to be the thorn of any side.
How Hodgson uses him will be interesting, as Sterling is certain of a significant role in Brazil. Hodgson should start Sterling on either flank, with Lallana on the other, if he decides to go with the traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. If Hodgson tries the diamond that Brendan Rodgers deployed to great effect for Liverpool, Sterling should get the role at the top of the diamond, making his trademark runs from deep, beyond the strikers, that will be hard for opposition midfielders and defenders to track and mark. There is also every chance Hodgson sees Sterling as more of an impact player, someone to bring off the bench against tiring legs, but that would just waste a player in a great run of form at the moment.
As mentioned in Italy’s World Cup Focus, it will be hard to choose between Uruguay, Italy and England for the two qualifying spots. England can top the group, but it is likely they will end up second, and a meeting with Colombia in the round of 16 looks likely. The added benefit of starting the tournament in such a tough group is that England will have to hit top form to qualify, and assuming they qualify, Hodgson’s men should be close to top form and at top form, Colombia should be dealt with more ease than Uruguay and Italy.
A potential quarter-finals meeting against Brazil is next, and there should be where the dream ends, just like in the 2002 tournament. However, if England can somehow win that game against the overwhelming tournament favourites, the belief amongst this young side will soar and who knows?