England faces tall World Cup task
LONDON — It was payback time for England. Fate might have dealt Fabio Capello’s players a relatively kind hand in 2010 — even if they made heavy weather of the United States and others — but four years on and Roy Hodgson’s lot have been put in probably the second toughest group of all. Maybe adversity will spur them. It will have to, because there is a real danger of missing the knockout stages.
True, England lost only on penalties to Italy in the European Championship and the wonderful Andrea Pirlo, whose passing rendered Hodgson’s lot lucky to get to the shoot-out will be two years older than in the Ukraine. But the Italians have a knack of coming together in tournaments, and in Mario Balotelli they have a striker who can dominate any defense when he’s in the mood.
There there’s Uruguay. And Luis Suarez, arguably up there with Aaron Ramsey as the outstanding performer in the Premier League this season — even though he missed Liverpool’s first few matches through suspension.
The best hope from England’s point of view is that Suarez is tired after a long, hard season. But, if he is, some of Hodgson’s could be more so, given that the Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal representatives also have to cope with whatever demands the latter stages of the Champions League may make of them.
Getting to the semis last time will have given the Uruguayans, who also have Edinson Cavani at the front, the confidence to mix it with the best. They also have great faith in a hugely experienced coach, Oscar Tabarez Washington — not that Hodgson is exactly wet behind the ears after Euro 2012 and his 1994 World Cup exploits with Switzerland in the US.
Although Costa Rica will be expected to finish fourth in the group, they have familiar faces to the English in Bryan Ruiz, the Fulham attacker, and Bryan Oviedo, the Everton left-back who scored his side’s late winner against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
But the danger is losing that opening match to the Italians in the steamy heat of Manaus. The conditions will be the same for both sides, of course, and the outcome could be affected by whether England or Italy do better in terms of preparation and acclimatization. England have already fixed to play their final friendly in Miami, which should help, but the key might be getting up to the Amazon rainforest region nice and early from their base in Rio de Janeiro.
After that, England meet Uruguay in Sao Paulo, where it will remain on the humid side of comfortable, before heading for the perfect summer climate of Belo Horizonte to take on the Costa Ricans.
Even this carries potential hazards for the English, however, as historians will recall. For it was in Belo Horizonte that England suffered their most humiliating World Cup defeat, at the hands of the US in 1950. Could lightning strike in the same place twice? Come the build-up to the third match, this may well have taken over from the Amazon humidity as England’s biggest weather worry.