England prospects look good but questions remain about Rooney
Jun 15, 2014 at 7:56a ET
MANAUS, Brazil --
This was England’s best defeat for years. Second isn't nowhere when you still have two games to play to stay in the World Cup and can have reasonable hope of winning both of them.
A superb opening match against Italy was very much in keeping with the quality of this outstanding – so far – tournament. It almost seems like the planet is paying a special tribute to the unique place the host nation holds in soccer and England has certainly done its bit for the pageant so far, even if Roy Hodgson’s men could not quite tame Cesare Prandelli’s lot on the steamy fringes of the Amazon jungle.
Everything the fans and critics had asked of England was supplied in the first half – except a complete answer to the majestic passing of Andrea Pirlo. And the neutrals watching across the world would not have been complaining about that.
Yet, after the bearded veteran's stepover had led to Italy moving in front, the response was magnificent: a flowing move down the left, a gorgeous cross from Wayne Rooney and a half-volley from Daniel Sturridge at the far post that proved the Liverpool striker can, after all, use his right foot for more than standing.
If there was an area of concern, however, it materialised soon after half time when Rooney was absent from his defensive post as Leighton Baines allowed Antonio Candreva to measure the cross from which Mario Balotelli headed the winner.
Read between the lines of coach Hodgson’s post-match verdict: "It’s good to know we have so many players who will make us a good team going forward." Yes, there are defensive problems down the left and, although Glen Johnson allayed fears that he could be a weakness on the other side, England must be careful not to expose their flanks in the remaining group matches against Uruguay and Costa Rica.
What does that mean for Rooney, who had a reasonable game without doing enough to still the voices of those who feel his place in the team should be at least insecure?
At times, worryingly, the one-time England wonderkid looked short of fitness in the humid heat, although that could resolve itself if the problem is solely due to weather, for now England return to their Rio de Janeiro base to train at around 25 degrees for the game against Uruguay in Sao Paulo, where it could be even cooler.
With Belo Horizonte to come, the worst should be over, weather-wise. But there is, of course, still a lot to do. Starting with the Uruguayans, who, though their dismal form in a 3-1 defeat by surprise package Costa Rica was encouraging for Hodgson and his players, will surely be strengthened by the return from injury of the great Luis Suarez.
Despite this, Uruguay will be more worried about England than the other way round. Their defending was extremely poor, notably in the air, and their once-notorious temperament made a reappearance in the closing stages as Maxi Pereira was red-carded – and Martin Caceres should have been for the most hideous so-called tackle of the tournament so far.
Hodgson shares the general belief that this game in Sao Paulo has become a must-win for England. But it’s definitely a should-win if they can perform as in Manaus, where all the youthful verve the nation had hoped Hodgson would allow to flourish was evident in attacks often led by the 19-year-old Raheem Sterling and his club colleague Sturridge.
It was, said Hodgson, the best England had played since he took over more than two years ago and this was the most heartening factor: the improvement, not just on the level displayed in qualifying but on the showing in pre-tournament friendlies. The graph seems to be going in the right direction at the right time.
They just need to keep this combination of teamwork, tempo and flair going for another two games to get into the second round, where, to judge from Colombia's rather flattering 3-0 win over Greece, they might encounter another task within their capabilities.
But first things first. Or rather second things. For, even if Suarez and Uruguay are satisfactorily overcome, there remains the unforeseen – by many – challenge of the Costa Ricans, whose thrilling triumph over Uruguay rivalled the shock caused by Holland’s demolition of Spain the previous day.
In each case, the losers scored first and the way Joel Campbell led Costa Rica’s recovery from the setback administered by Edinson Cavani was quite inspiring – not least for Arsenal fans aware that Campbell is their property, even though he spent last season on loan with Olympiacos in Greece.
He didn’t just score himself. In weighting and placing the through ball that Marco Urena artfully edged past Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera for the clinching third goal, Campbell made the moment of the tournament so far. And that’s saying something. England beware. But be alive. And be proud of what you've done so far.