Underdog England can spring surprise

The death of English soccer has been somewhat exaggerated.

This is not to deny that the game’s motherland (or so we are led to believe, even if soccer as we would recognize it was shaped in Scotland, refined by the mid-Europeans and turned into an art form by the Brazilians) is the last great underachiever on the international stage; that distinction was acquired by England when Spain won back-to-back European and world titles in 2008 and 2010.

But there are signs the English are getting wise and they have been accompanied by a pair of steady wins in the friendly matches that constitute the meat of coach Roy Hodgson’s preparation for Euro 2012. After beating Norway 1-0 in Oslo, England contrived the same score against Belgium in front of 85,000 at Wembley on Saturday, in the aggregate process burying fears that Hodgson’s team would not be half their normal selves without star Wayne Rooney.

Rooney is suspended for the Euro opener against France on June 11 and the next game against Sweden four days later – and would have missed the final group fixture against joint hosts Ukraine but for an appeal to UEFA at which the player was represented by a packed midfield of lawyers. This was after taking a petulant hack at an opponent in Montenegro towards the end of a qualifying campaign supervised by Fabio Capello.

If the inscrutable Italian had been worth a $9 million-a-year salary that made him the highest-paid national coach in history, his resignation – over the English FA’s insistence that he remove the captaincy from the serially controversial John Terry – would have been cause for concern. But the hiatus was put to good use by the FA, who, while the nation assumed that Tottenham’s folksy Harry Redknapp would take over, arrived at a quite different decision, unveiling the deadly-serious Hodgson just six weeks before the tournament.

Hodgson has resolved the Rooney problem as Capello almost certainly would have done, slotting Ashley Young into the role behind the main striker that Rooney tends to occupy for Manchester United – where Young is usually to be found on the left flank. If Rooney’s absence was a plate, Young has stepped up quite magnificently well. After scoring a fine goal in Oslo, he helped to make an even better one for Danny Welbeck at Wembley and was singled out for praise afterwards by the new Belgium coach, Marc Wilmots. "Young is quick," said Wilmots, almost wincing. "Very quick."

Welbeck is no slouch either and the arrival on the international scene of this thoroughly impressive 21-year-old forward was another reason for Wembley to be cheerful, especially as he, too, plays his weekly soccer at Old Trafford. When Rooney is available again, this should provide Hodgson with an integrated club unit at the front of the team.

But first things first. Welbeck probably played himself into the starting line-up against France in Donetsk with that goal. No wonder Hodgson almost purred like a cat as he reflected on it afterwards. To a coach, this kind of stuff is the cream. Welbeck temporarily left his striker’s station to drop deep and help Steven Gerrard to tackle Moussa Dembele, the smoothest technician of a Belgian team expected to peak at the World Cup in two years. Gerrard fed Young, who found Welbeck running on, through his favored inside-left channel, and, if the kid wasn’t sure where to put the ball, the half-advance of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet told him: a neat chip found the net.

Welbeck is not just fast but very intelligent, with a team attitude and a ready smile that suggests he should be fun to have around for the next month or so. It will, of course, be less so if England are eliminated in the first round, but the astute Hodgson, who might have been in charge of the national team more than a decade ago had a previous FA regime not foolishly decided the team ought to be coached by designer-brand foreigners with price tags to match – first Sven-Goran Eriksson, then Capello – is capable of showing them how to amass enough points to reach the knockout stages.

Hodgson, once a successful national coach of Switzerland (and more recently Finland) is definitely a strength. To rebuild his career at West Bromwich after the nightmare of Liverpool, where the fans never accepted him, showed character. Another English asset, despite the populous send-off at the national stadium, is the relatively low expectation level in an erstwhile soccer powerhouse that has encountered recurrent energy crises since 1966, when England’s only prize, the World Cup, was won on home soil.

Hodgson appears anxious not to disturb that. He said on Saturday that France would be favorites when England kick off their tournament. What he cannot control is the spate of injuries that England almost invariably suffer at this stage.

But don’t rule them out yet. Even though only a fool would make them favorites for the tournament as a whole – with Spain, Germany and the rest to be overcome – the English remain the strongest dark horse in the European tournament. Just like their coach.