By Liam Twomey in Rio de Janeiro
Even accounting for the optimism borne of talented youth, England will take to the field against Italy at the Arena Amazonia in Manaus on Saturday with the lowest set of expectations in recent memory. Faced with considerable heat, stifling humidity and four-times World Cup winners, the sense is that for all his bullish public pronouncements, Roy Hodgson would happily take a point.
|ENGLAND SOCIAL HUB
|Keep up with all the latest Three Lions news and get involved in the debate on Twitter with our new England Social Hub|
In contrast, over half of the teams (58.3%) who draw their opening match advance. The numbers are pretty unequivocal: you cannot win the World Cup in your first game, but you are far more at risk of losing it.
Indeed, two of England’s most successful ever World Cup campaigns began with draws. In 1966, Alf Ramsay’s men were frustrated by a negative Uruguay team at Wembley before going on to win the trophy. In 1990 it was Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland who held a Three Lions side which went on to push eventual champions West Germany all the way in a dramatic semi-final.
But even assuming that England can emerge from Manaus with their precious point, a share of the spoils will send Roy Hodgson’s men into their subsequent clashes against Uruguay and Costa Rica with no more margin for error.
With Luis Suarez fighting his hardest to be fit to face a team he would love to derail and an underrated Costa Rica side boasting Keylor Navas, one of the best goalkeepers in Spain last season, that is not a good position to be in.
Group D is the only one at this World Cup to boast four teams inside the top 30 of the current Fifa rankings. There are unikely to be any easy wins.
The idea of a draw against Italy being a good result is borne largely out of the pessimism which has surrounded the national team ever since that desperate campaign in South Africa four years ago. England no longer expects.
But as Hodgson contemplates the prospect of unleashing burgeoning talents Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley on the world’s best, to talk of results is to miss the point.
For England, this tournament is about performances. A draw against Italy is only a good result if it is achieved in the right way. England fans do not need a dour, scrappy stumble into the quarter-finals to reignite their passion for the national team. Euro 2012 proved that Hodgson’s men are capable of that. This time they need to be inspired.
Fast, dynamic attacking football will be difficult in the heat and humidity of Manaus, but not impossible. There is also the issue of cohesion – much of this England squad has come together at the last minute as a result of form during last season’s Premier League.
Jordan Henderson, Sterling, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw have never played a competitive minute at international level, while Barkley has just half an hour against Moldova at Wembley to his name.
But if their prodigious individual talents can spark into life, there is no reason why England cannot entertain and excite more than at any point in the last decade. Italy are formidable opponents but also an older, slower team, and there is something to be said for the fearlessness of inexperience.
Two years ago England got a draw over 90 minutes against Italy. The performance brought relative redemption after the disaster of South Africa without ever threatening to win over hearts and minds.
This time even a glorious failure would be preferable – that is, assuming they fail…
Follow Liam Twomey on