England’s World Cup group could have been a lot tougher, of that there is little doubt.
Had they been drawn, as they threatened to be momentarily, alongside Holland, Denmark and Portugal, the squad could have planned their holidays for the end of June. As it is, France Ukraine and Sweden represent opponents who can be beaten.
But to do so will require an extraordinary effort. For one, England decided before the draw to base themselves in Kraków. Now, they face games in Donetsk – as far east as you can go without being in Russia – and Kiev during the group stages. The first game indeed is against France in Donetsk, and if the French were able to beat England so convincingly last year at Wembley, imagine what they can do with the advantage of not travelling quite as far.
For England, they will go to the tournament largely relying upon the midfield pair of Scott Parker and Jack Wilshere; between them they have the stereotypical English work ethic and commitment, but also the ability to retain possession and play intelligent passes. Their ability to control the game will be crucial against a France team that boasts the talents of Yann M’Vila and Alou Diarra in central midfield, and Yoann Gourcuff, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery ahead of them.
Oh and Jeremy Menez, Mathieu Valbuena and Marvin Martin. And Karim Benzema, Loic Remy and Kevin Gameiro.
If England are to cope with what is possibly the greatest array of attacking talent outside of Spain or Germany, they are going to have to produce a performance of quite un-English quality. A draw would appear the most optimistic result from this opening game, which would leave England requiring a victory against Sweden.
England, though it has not been mentioned much as yet, have never beaten Sweden in an international tournament. When these countries meet, it is usually a draw. England won for the first time against them in 40 plus years at Wembley in a friendly recently, but they were little better than their opponents, and will be shorn of Wayne Rooney for the game.
Even if England do come through this game with a win, there is a strong possibility that they will come up against Ukraine in what could be a game that decides who goes through from the group. In Donetsk, some 900 miles away from Kraków, England will take on their hosts and a fervent home crowd, and possibly still without Rooney.
It is not an insurmountable or unachievable task. But to pretend that this is a good draw would be naïve. England can win, and they can qualify, but if they do so they will likely face Spain in the quarter finals. If England can somehow win the group, they would face Italy.
Yes, the draw could have been worse. But England are unlikely to be in Kiev for the final of next year’s tournament, and their best hope now is probably to rest Rooney entirely, and give tournament experience to talented youngsters such as Adam Johnson, Theo Walcott and Daniel Sturridge. Wilshere, Jack Rodwell, Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones all also offer reason to be optimistic about England’s future. They have also demonstrated the mental fortitude to thrive under intense pressure at club level in their short careers to date. What better grounding for them, than being sent out to face Ukraine in Donetsk? Fabio Capello will leave after the tournament is over. England should not waste it believing fancifully that they can beat Germany, Spain and Holland – far superior teams – to lift the European crown. They should take the opportunity to blood youngsters who will take to the field in Brazil, France or Russia in the years to come with a more realistic chance of competing with the world’s and Europe’s best.
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