After losing their World Cup opener 2-1 to Italy in stifling Manaus, England find themselves in an uncomfortable position.
No, it’s not about making up the lost points. It’s this: England lives in hope.
How else can you explain The S*n newspaper calling the team “Brave Lions” after a somewhat unexpected loss? How else do you explain the optimism that is still, stubbornly, ringing around the England camp?
In Manaus, England were Pirlo-ed by an Italian team with a ton of tournament nous. Italy deserve a ton of credit – even with big injuries and new players being blooded in defense, Italy paced themselves and came up with one more big moment than their opposition.
How good were the Italians? They had the best pass-completion rate of any team in World Cup history at 93.2%. Players like Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian were plugged in and performed. Georgio Chiellini at fullback? No problem.
Cesare Prandelli showed again why he has quietly become one of the best international managers in the world. Italy, as good as they are, even punched above their weight.
And even with all of that, this was a very competitive game. Hodgson’s team easily outshot Italy, and had seven more corners than their opposition – minus the one that Wayne Rooney pumped into Row Z. Despite the will-sapping conditions, England was there to be reckoned with to the very end.
The result – especially at the beginning of major tournaments – isn’t everything.
In Euro 2012, England were winning a penalty shootout against the Italians that would have put them in a semifinal against Germany had they held on. They didn’t, and no one shed too many tears.
The England team was totally outclassed that day. It was time to go home.
It was a different story against Italy this time around. England traded overwhelming negativity for sweetly surprising positivity. With Raheem Sterling through the middle, it was the most attacking approach for England at a major tournament in more than a decade.
Thanks in large part to Sterling, England made a fast start. They could easily have scored more than their one goal, a sensational move finished off by Daniel Sturridge.
Yes, they lost. But England more than escaped the jungle with their tournament intact, they leave with their heads held high and ready to play again.
It’s a team with more to give. No one played their best game against Italy.
Rooney’s position continues to be a problem. He mostly flattered to deceive and left Leighton Baines totally exposed for the full 90 minutes, while Sterling and Sturridge faded and the central midfield of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson were run ragged.
They all have more to give, and look a good bet to give it.
This tournament is already better than England’s 2010 disaster. With Costa Rica’s shock win over Uruguay, England still has a clear path through the group.
Of course, the test for Hodgson and his team will be sticking to their optimistic approach. Fear of failure kicks in as early as this Thursday and kickoff in Sao Paulo – if England doesn’t beat Uruguay, they’re probably on their way home.
One of the reasons it’s so good that England has a young team at this tournament is that England are always best when playing without fear. Think 2002, a situation very comparable to 2014, versus the myriad frustrations of the last two campaigns in Germany and South Africa.
England have real quality. They must believe in themselves and their new approach.
Said Prandelli, ‘We know England have changed a lot in the last few years. They used to play with long balls and headers. Now England are very good playing in triangles and one on one. They really have one the strongest attacks in the World Cup. I’ve been really consistent in what I’ve been saying: we played against a great team.”
Of course results matter. But the general hope from England before this tournament was that the team would make people proud. They did that, and despite the defeat, the country enjoyed the Italy game more than any played in South Africa – including a win.
Sterling started. Ross Barkley was the first substitute off the bench. Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana featured as well. Hodgson is managing like a person who knows not only that he has found a good team at his behest, he’s managing without that fear we know all too well.
The Uruguay game will test his convictions, but would Hodgson want to change things after a very positive showing?
In truth, England have turned norms around in this tournament thus far. It’s no longer fashionable to bash the Lions. England are matching the footballing mood of Brazil.
One thing is for sure: Italy 2, England 1 doesn’t feel bad. England do have to win now – but for the first time in years, you wouldn’t bet against them.