By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Three Lions come to Brazil having made a mountain out of a molehill of what looked to be a simple qualification group. But now, having made it to the finals, they will have their work cut out once again after being drawn in what appears to be the toughest of the eight groups.
England are in Group D, the only mini-league to contain three former world champions. Beside the 1966 champions, Italy and Uruguay, as well as Costa Rica, make up the teams in England’s way.
England versus Italy
Saturday, June 14th
Arena Amazônia in Manaus
England must hit the ground running in what promises to be a devilishly tough group opener. They kick-off their World Cup quest against 2006 champions Italy at the hot and humid Arena Amazônia in Manaus.
It should be a tough game for both sides, owing as much to the natural habitat as the opponents on the pitch. Manaus, situated deep in the Amazon rainforest, is known for its humid climate, which will make playing conditions difficult for the European countries accustomed to cooler climates.
Despite it being an evening game temperatures could still reach 35 degrees, and will make for challenging circumstances to say the least. Players will need to pace themselves in the heat in what is expected to be a slow paced opening encounter from both camps.
England versus Uruguay
Thursday, June 19th
Arena Corinthians in São Paulo
Tasks don’t get any easier for England in their second match. Five days later they take on two-time World Cup winners Uruguay at the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo. The contest is one of the most anticipated of the group stages, seeing two of the world’s best strikers on opposite sides.
Wayne Rooney is England’s principal offensive threat for the competition, but Uruguay have a potentially more potent weapon in their own locker. Liverpool striker Luís Suarez is arguably the hottest property in world football right now. This season he has netted thirty goals in a Premier League campaign that has helped propel Liverpool towards a possible first league title since 1990.
His partner in attack, Edinson Cavani, is no slouch either. The Paris Saint-Germain frontman bagged a brace ten days ago in the French Cup final against Lyon to help his club to the crown. England’s defense, patched up since the retirement of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, will need to be on their guard.
England versus Costa Rica
Tuesday, June 24th
Mineirão in Belo Horizonte
On paper, England’s final game is their most simple, yet if they slip up against Italy and Uruguay their World Cup adventure could be as good as over when they meet Costa Rica at the recently renovated Mineirão in Belo Horizonte.
Manager Roy Hodgson has already admitted their final opponents are something of an unknown entity. It will be the first time in the history of international football the two countries have locked horns.
If England are to progress from Group D, due to the proximity in technical level of the three former World Cup winners, it may well come down to goal difference. The likes of Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and an in-form Raheem Sterling will be key to the country’s prospects and putting as many as they can past the Coast Rica could go a long way to deciding England’s fate.
Yet as tough a group draw as analysts call it, Hodgson told BBC radio, “When I look at the other groups I don’t see too many where life would be that much easier, and you can also be fooled into thinking life is going to be easier. It is a dangerous thing to do.”
For the first time in many years expectations are at an all-time low as England get ready for the World Cup. The so called golden generation of Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham et al has passed, leaving a side short of creation in midfield and low on confidence. As Hodgson prepares to announce his World Cup squad, he has revealed that recent form will not sway his decision. He told fifa.com, “I’m not going to make decisions in the last week or two of the season, which is a notoriously bad time to judge talent.”
On paper, England are not rich with talent. Yet with that comes a certain liberation and England can approach this World Cup free of media pressure as they do battle against some of the biggest names in world football.