Losing the first game in a World Cup is generally considered to be terminal when it comes to bids to qualify from the group stages and England’s defeat to Italy last night may well be the first stamp on a return trip home but the weird thing is that I’ve seen England teams win group games before and felt much more negative about the overall outlook.
How refreshing too is it that, on first glance anyway, the Sunday papers and match reports aren’t photo shopping vegetables in place of players and managers’ heads but instead bringing up plenty of positives from a showing that was enough to soften the blow of defeat. This England side has a fantastic vibrancy about it and actually looking forward to games is in itself a welcome detour from the usual dread that fills the veins of World Cups and European Championships.
I’m sure there’s plenty out there who don’t agree and think that only wins matter but, as this excellent article on the evolution of the Belgian side, sometimes you just have to accept that results may not go our way when we’re blooding these exciting youngsters.
Raheem Sterling was the shining star on this occasion – he simply has no fear of reputation, he gets his head down and he just runs at defences. That’s all we’ve asked of others who have come through in the last few years and failed to carry through club form into the national side partly thanks to this dreadful complex our media sometimes has that it’s either win or we’re failures. The general outlook this morning is as refreshing as last night’s efforts were and perhaps we are on the cusp of re-evaluating our position in world football.
Italy were a lot stronger than I’d envisaged and were clever in possession. It was so crucial that we got back into the game thanks to Daniel Sturridge’s well taken equaliser – the Italians are brought up on possession football and making the opposition work for it and that was key to their eventual victory here. The heat was playing its part by the later stages and after a maturing Mario Balotelli header put Italy back in front just after the break they made no more mistakes in letting us back in.
That meant chasing the game and with substitutions having to be made Sterling’s influence diminished as his energy sapped following a rejig that pushed him wider late in the game. Contrary to past England teams, though, we actually looked threatening and capable of breaking down the stubborn resistence of the Italian wall. They were more interested in keeping what they had the tactic was a testament to England’s attacking threat.
A few misplaced crosses and corners made up the final throws of our dice late on but we were at least getting into those positions. All of this sounds like a hard luck story and like a misunderstanding non-football fan saying “ah well, it’s just a game” but I’m genuinely excited about our national side again and if we come out of the competition all feeling that way then surely that’s actually better than scraping through the group playing poorly and crashing out as soon as we meet a big nation in Round Two?
The few negatives this morning all centre around Wayne Rooney and his showing on the left side of the attacking three that sat behind Sturridge. I’m torn on his involvement – on the one hand it’s clearly not his strongest position and Italy caused us problems time after time on that side of the pitch but on the other he’s still a clearly talented individual. I don’t think his performance was as bad as some are making out – many look for a scapegoat no matter what – but Roy Hodgson does have a headache going into the huge game with Uruguay on Thursday evening as to what to do with him.
That game could ultimately decide whether we make it to the Second Round but Costa Rica’s victory opens things up a little bit more. Even a draw with Uruguay keeps us in the mix so long as the Costa Ricans don’t pull another surprise on Italy earlier in the day. That being a 5pm kick off means we’ll know exactly what we’re heading into stakes wise come 8pm in our game. Should Costa Rica lose then a draw would mean that we could yet go into the final game knowing that a big win would still take us through.
All of those permutations are likely to come second to practicality and experience this time out but if we can have both progress AND some exciting play that would be very nice too!