England expects? Not any more
OK, apart from this opening paragraph, this preview is a Rio Ferdinand-free zone. He has not been picked by Roy Hodgson – for whatever reason, I care not why – did not receive a late call-up as injured players fell like ninepins and, thus, has little relevance to offer to England’s Euro 2012 campaign . Forget Rio … as of now, I have.
Of more concern to me is how Hodgson will mould a competitive team from what is essentially an average-looking squad, a team that can go on to conquer all in Poland and Ukraine. It can be done, as Denmark and Greece have proved in the past, and with expectation so low back home, there is no “Here we go, here we go …” jingoism to have to cope with. That is good.
As TS Footballer has pointed out in the regular and lively in-house banter sessions, where are all the flags on cars or hanging from windows and balconies? “Nobody is that fussed,” TSF ventures. “That might just be our secret weapon.” And, indeed, it might. England expects? Not any more. England just hopes and prays to see a few green shoots of progress.
Hodgson has an uneviable task. Thrust into the job with little time to prepare, he has had to contend with many off-the-pitch rumblings, the loss of key players and a couple of awkward-looking friendlies against Norway and Belgium. Both matches were won 1-0, far from impressively, but at least it kept the howling hack pack at bay … for a while.
The two-match suspension brainlessly incurred by Wayne Rooney in qualifying hardly helps Hodgson, either. England look a bit thin up front, with neither Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck having top-tournament experience and Jermain Defoe having to come to terms with the death of his father.
And I still wonder whether Steven Gerrard can provide the same inspirational qualities as England captain as he has done down the years at club level at Anfield. I can’t remember the last time I saw him play with a smile on his face. So often, he appears as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Lighten up, Steve. Enjoy it.
Hodgson has already addressed the prospect of failure, that niggly feeling that England might not even emerge from Group D. “If that does happen,” he said, “I will learn an awful lot about what I need to do in the coming couple of years to make sure that it doesn’t happen in Brazil in 2014.”
I like that. Not a wimpish case of getting your excuses in first … more a dose of refreshing realism, an acceptance of vulnerability. No more delusions of grandeur or misplaced arrogance. At last, England seem to know what they are and where they are, a journeyman side perhaps on the up yet prepared to be humble and take a few setbacks along the way.
France is an acid test first time out, coach Laurent Blanc having brought a semblance of sanity to the squad – after the mad, mad reign of Raymond Domenech – and having steered them to an unbeaten sequence of 21 matches. France have flair in abundance; England cannot compete with that.
But, for now, a bullish display, a fiercely contested Anglo-French duel, will suffice. If England give it their all, that’ll do nicely for starters.
Prediction: France 1, England 1
Also in Group D: Ukraine v Sweden (Kiev, 7.45)
Ukraine, like their fellow co-hosts Poland, might well stutter at the first hurdle. Defeats against Austria, 3-2, and Turkey, 2-0, in their closing warm-up matches does not augur well. Mind you, they weren’t helped before the latter match when ten of their players went down with food poisoning. Sweden couldn’t be in finer fettle, posting successive victories – 3-2 over Iceland and 2-1 over Serbia – as they prepared for the tournament.
Prediction: Ukraine 0, Sweden 2