England and the long way to Brazil

September 5, 2012 in International

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The dust had just about settled on this summer’s two international footballing tournaments when the real action got back under way. The Barclays Premier League once again started in ferocious style, with two 5-0 drubbings in the first week, to Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson’s ten billionth great escape against Southampton in the weekend just gone. This start has left many a fan’s mouth watering at the prospect of the next set of games. Liverpool are in chaos, as are QPR and Spurs, while both Manchester clubs have failed to emulate their amazing starts from last year. Chelsea, Swansea and West Brom have all got off to brilliant starts under new management, and Fulham, Everton, Sunderland and West Ham’s new signing have all started brightly. Wigan have dumbfounded everyone by not losing their first three matches, while Arsenal have also confused by keeping three clean sheets in a row. It has been fantastic.

The only problem is that the upcoming international break leaves us on a cliffhanger.

Now this is okay for a soap opera, and granted, football is compared to one often enough, but this week’s international fixtures feel more like someone has spliced a Mickey Mouse cartoon into the middle of the epic blockbuster you were just watching: WHAT THE HELL?!

Although a lot of football fans in England– including myself - have become disillusioned over recent years with the England set up as a whole, we should be looking at the bright sides. With new competition comes new responsibilities. A new hope. A chance for teams to boldly go where no team has gone since 1966. And many other assorted geek references.

England’s games and, indeed, group seem to be comfortable enough for a team currently ranked third in the world (I know, wtf, right?). Poland and the Ukraine are the biggest threats in the group, and while Montenegro could be tricky, perennial whipping boys Moldova and San Marino should be brushed aside with ease. In fact, it would be a surprise to most football fans were England not to qualify from the group with great ease.

Of course, success is never guaranteed - you only have to look at the disastrous 2008 qualifying campaign to realise that - but I for one have high hopes that Roy Hodgson will not become the new wally with the brolly, and am willing to put my neck on the line and say that England will finish top of their group with ease (bold, I know). However, qualification for our nation has never been enough, has it? Especially now - with the success of the Olympics and the relative success of Euro 2012, English people finally feel that we are competitive again; we must at least be competitive enough to repeat the quarter-final performance from Poland and the Ukraine.

Spirits, of course, have been dampened somewhat this week with England’s record goalscorer Sir Bobby Charlton telling us that we don’t have the quality of players to win anything in Brazil 2014. Charlton said “They haven’t got a lot of top-quality players so you must feel it is going to be difficult to win things. You cannot see it happening in Brazil at the next World Cup, for instance… I have to be honest and say it’s a way off.” Most fans, of course, would be inclined to agree that Hodgson would be a bit of a miracle worker were he to bring back the World Cup mainly because of the talents of other teams in the competition. Brazil and current holders Spain will be favourites, and both teams are full of attacking quality which cannot be denied. Regular title contenders Germany will also be in the mix, while Argentina and Uruguay will be hopeful of winning the World Cup on their continent.

So what hope do we have? Well, Sir Bobby has also been exposing the virtues of England’s most naturally gifted player, Wayne Rooney, claiming that he will be the man to break his goalscoring record (49 for those interested, Rooney’s currently on 29). Rooney has, however, struggled recently with being fit for international tournament football and has recently said that he turned up for the beginning of this season overweight and unfit. His subsequent injury in the game against Fulham (in which he started only his second game for Man Utd on the bench) has also ruled him out of these upcoming qualifiers. But on his day, he is a player that can make a difference between an average team and a quality one. If England can create a team to support him, they have a chance.

The signs in the last tournament were good. Although they weren’t spectacular - particularly in their last game against Italy - Hodgson created a solid unit that were unbeaten in open play and were only knocked out by the eventual finalists on penalties. The key for Hodgson is to get the new younger players coming through into this system and playing with the same togetherness that the old guard showed in the Euros. In their latest friendly, also against Italy, the signs were good.  Only Ashley Young remained from the side that was knocked out of the tournament and they tweaked the formation slightly from a 4-4-2 to a more fluid 4-2-3-1, but they played in much the same vein and managed to triumph 2-1, thanks to a spectacular Jermain Defoe goal. If Hodgson can get the same work ethic into his team, supplemented by the quality of Rooney, then they will be a threat to anyone.

There is also no guarantee that the favourites mentioned above will also be a threat come 2014 – excluding the Germans, never rule out the Germans. Brazil and Uruguaywere both unconvincing in the Olympic tournament with much the same teams as will be competing in the World Cup, while Argentina didn’t even qualify. And then we come to Spain - a fourth international title in a row would be almost unheard of. They also struggled in the Olympics, but their team will be much different come Brazil. However, I just can’t see them doing it again. I hope not, anyway.

All this is, of course, a long way off, but there’s no reason not to be encouraged by England’s chances. So we should ignore Sir Bobby’s pessimism and concentrate on getting these qualifiers out of the way with a smile on our faces and points on the board. The first step on a hopefully long road.

And if we lose? Well, bugger it, I never much liked intermissions anyway. Get back on with the main feature!