World Cup dark horses: how long will England last in Brazil?
With the pressure off, Roy Hodgson's blend of youth and experience may be able to play without fear
England have done a good job of keeping a lid on expectations ahead of the World Cup in Brazil. On the eve of the tournament nobody considers them to be genuine challengers for the semi finals, let alone the trophy itself.
It's easy to understand why. The country got carried away before the last World Cup in South Africa, and the Three Lions believed they were in with a chance of winning the tournament. They could not have been more wrong.
A slightly paranoid squad adopted a bunker mentality, barely made it through the group stages and then made a chastening exit at the hands of a vibrant young German team . With hindsight you could see it coming.
Things are different this time round. The weight of expectation is gone and Roy Hodgson's management has a much lighter touch that that of Fabio Capello.
You could even argue that this young and cheerful England squad, with its emphasis on attack, has more in common with the German side that eliminated Capello's men in South Africa than it does with the Italian's pedestrian outfit.
England have a horrible draw, but if things go their way then they could surprise a few people.
Players to watch: Much of the focus of England's build-up has been about youth, and the likes of Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley do give the Three Lions a certain X-factor. But they will get nowhere without a significant contribution from their heavyweights, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. Given the threadbare state of the defence, the form of goalkeeper Joe Hart could be crucial.
Why they could do well: The chances of eleven Englishman stepping onto the Maracana on 13 July are almost negligible, but stranger things have happened. The squad has a good blend of youth and experience. Nine of the squad are under 25, and only five are over 30.
This is a swansong for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard and possibly a final chance for Wayne Rooney to convince the world of his talents. For the younger players from Liverpool and Arsenal it is a chance to announce themselves.
Compared to 2010, when England were among the favourites, the 2014 vintage is actually "younger, quicker, more vibrant, more technically gifted", says Oliver Kay of The Times. There is also more strength in depth. Wayne Rooney has claimed it is the best England squad he has worked with, although he would hardly say anything else.
"Roy Hodgson spent the qualification campaign blooding youngsters and experimenting with more positive formations than the rigid 4-4-2... and there is a fresh, exciting feel about the England side," agrees Michael Cox in The Guardian.
It is also telling that the debate about the starting line-up for the match against Italy has involved only one formation and has revolved around no more than three positions. That indicates a clarity of thinking and purpose (and perhaps a lack of options). But having a coherent approach could be crucial.
Statistically, England have "two specific strengths", says MSN, after crunching the data, "their ability to hit the target from long range... [and] their productive use of the wings".
Finally there is the lack of expectation. "Humility has overtaken hubris," says Kay. "Hopes are for performances, for hints of long-term promise, rather than necessarily for progress to some specified point in the tournament." By playing without fear, England could prosper.
Why they probably won't: Here is where the paradox at the heart of English football comes into play. If England do perform well, the pressure will increase, the mood will darken and the unrealistic expectations could well start to take their toll. Success could well breed failure for England.
On the other hand, if they do perform badly no-one will be surprised. Losing is almost a win-win scenario for the team.
Philosophical points aside, England are ill-equipped defensively to progess far in the tournament. The warm-up games highlighted the lack of cover at the back, while even the first-choice back four would not make it into many other teams.
Unsurprisingly England's technical problems are largely defensive. Set pieces are an issue, as is holding on to leads. Only three of the 32 teams heading for Brazil surrendered a greater share of points from winning positions, says MSN.
How far can they go: No-one seems to be sure. A straw poll of nine journalists by Oliver Kay of the Times ended with an even split between a group-stage exit, a last-16 exit and a quarter-final exit. Other pundits believe that the semi finals are a possibility.
What the bookies think:
As The Week's intelligent punter's guide to the tournament notes, it will be tough to get out of the group stages but not Mission Impossible. But the bookies are taking no chances and England are just 11/2 to make it to the semi finals. Odds of 28/1 to win the tournament are hardly generous. ·