World Cup: Three steps to heaven

The England mood is quietly veering from cautious to mildly optimistic.

At Euro 2012, the toothless Three Lions were dismissed as wheezing, moaning old men, raging against the dying of the light.

Their football belonged to the dark ages. Fast forward two years and a little youthful buoyancy has found its way into England's game.

Instant humiliation no longer seems the likeliest outcome. Qualification appears a distinct possibility, if not quite a racing certainty.

Here's how England could leap across those three steps to heaven (or the knockout stages at least).


When the Three Lions face off against the Italians, they'll be forgiven for thinking they were standing in front of a two-year old mirror.

There are faint echoes of England's 2012 ignominy around the Italian squad.

Ageing, slowing familiar faces saddled with a stubborn mindset and a domestic league resistant to change.

The evolving game has drifted from their grasp. That accusation was levelled at England at Euro 2012. The Italian media has heaped similar criticism onto their stalling superstars.

Ever the pragmatist, Cesare Prandelli has tried to tinker with the "soak-and seek-out-an-opportunity" approach, but is not blessed with the youthful personnel that has fallen into Roy Hodgson's lap via Liverpool, Southampton and Everton.

In the recent poor draws against Luxembourg and the Republic of Ireland, there was more than a hint of routine plodding about the Italians. They were mundane. They were often muddled.

Against England, Daniele de Rossi should bark away on a leash in front of his back four.

Muzzle him and England's speed will be the last thing the Italian defence needs, particularly after conceding three against Brazilian club side Fluminense.

De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio still do all the running for the world's most timeless digestive system. Everything still goes through Andrea Pirlo. He's 35, but carves open defences with the same ruthless, clinical efficiency; he's a hairy Hannibal Lecter in football boots.

Steven Gerrard must break the ties that bind de Rossi to Pirlo. The Italian veteran cannot be admired from afar. He must be sat on.

Still, the recall of Antonio Cassano, now 31, in place of the injured Giuseppe Rossi underlines Prandelli's lack of attacking options.

But Ciro Immobile is a star on the rise, a relatively unknown quantity who bagged a hat-trick against Fluminense.

He may be paired with Mario Balotelli.

Immobile aside, there are few surprises in the Italian camp. Even the Azzurri admit to being wary of the Three Lions youthful vitality.

England should strive to cut the strings between de Rossi, Pirlo and Balotelli and take all three points.

The Italians haven't been this unfancied since 2006, when, er, they won the World Cup.


Of all England's games in Group D, this one will test Hodgson's innate conservative resolve most.

The Uruguayans are likely to need something from this game to possibly confirm qualification after playing Costa Rica in the opener.

They cannot sit back.

Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani are the prized assets. Diego Godi n and captain Diego Lugano are the weaker links. Pace petrifies the centre backs. Oscar Tabarez usually favours two screening midfielders, practically a seven-man defensive unit, to cover any ageing inadequacies at the back.

Counter-attacking is the preferred route to Rio. So the temptation to man the barricades in two banks of four may be irresistible to Hodgson. But the move could backfire spectacularly.

Le Celeste thrive on set-pieces and occasional breakaways; both are meat and drink for the voracious Suarez and Cavani.

The Liverpool likely lad bagged 11 in the World Cup qualifiers. He needs only one chance. He usually takes it.

But if Hodgson takes a dispassionate view, he will recognise that he has the edge in terms of midfield creativity. Diego Perez is likely to lead the 30-somethings for Uruguay.

Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley or even Raheem Sterling possess the pace to slip through the cracks. And then it's game on against Godin and Lugano.

If England attempt to suffocate the Uruguayans, Suarez will surely choke them in the end. A coughing, spluttering Hodgson will be left to eat his words.


Whether this fixture proves to be a group decider or a dead rubber, any result other than a win guarantees humiliation.

Costa Rica's gameplan makes England look like the swashbuckling Samba boys from 1970. Coach Jorge Luis Pinto favours 5-4-1, or 3-6-1 if he's feeling really adventurous.

If possession is king, then the Three Lions will reign with regal authority.

Their best player, Everton's Bryan Oviedo, is injured.

Creative responsibility rests upon the shoulders of Fulham reject Bryan Ruiz, who has at least thrived during a loan spell with PSV Eindhoven. Gerrard or Jordan Henderson should shackle him.

If England's vibrant array of attacking talent cannot puncture the Ticos' backline, they probably don't deserve to progress any further.

Besides, the Three Lions' fate will be decided not by this fixture, but by the tactical fortitude of their manager against Italy and Uruguay.

If Hodgson sets up not to lose, England almost certainly will.

This article was published on June 13 in The New Paper.

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