IN football circles, one phrase gets trotted out more often than most. Namely, how “luck evens itself out across a season”.
Well, for England’s footballers, these words can be re-tweaked to cover World Cup draws after the benevolent group of 2010 – when Fabio Capello’s side were handed the less than tough task, on paper at least, of getting past the combined might of the US, Algeria and Slovenia – having given way to what can only be dubbed a nightmare task in Brazil next year.
Uruguay and Italy, ranked sixth and seventh in the world, respectively, and possessing at least a couple of true world-class stars apiece, will join England and Costa Rica in what has been, rather predictably, dubbed the ‘Group of Death’.
Mind, Group D was not the only one given such a moniker with Spain, Holland, Chile and Australia making up Group B and Group G comprising Germany, Portugal, Ghana and the US.
Both of those will have fans of countries who, with a kinder draw, would have fancied their chances of excelling in 2014 suddenly fearing an early exit.
Whether England fall into the category of a team who might have expected to do well is debatable. But, even so, there was an audible intake of breath across the country when Sir Geoff Hurst, of all people, placed England in such a tough group.
Greg Dyke, the Football Association chairman, went one step further and made a jokey cut-throat gesture by sliding his index finger across his throat. The implication was clear: The Three Lions were a goner.
Almost a month on, Dyke’s gesture – which he later explained away as “a piece of humour” – seems as apt a way as any of evaluating England’s chances in Brazil.
Pessimism abounded, even before the December 6 draw. Back-to-back friendly defeats at home to Chile and Germany had seen to that.
Roy Hodgson may have tried to temper the downbeat mood afterwards by suggesting any euphoria that had built following England’s successful qualification campaign should not be swept away by two results for XIs that were clearly experimental.
Such a notion may have merit, not least because Hodgson deserved credit for having a look at the likes of Adam Lallana, Fraser Forster and Jay Rodriguez in games where points were not at stake. Fabio Capello’s failure to do the same ahead of the 2010 World Cup, for instance, was why England’s in-form goalkeeper, Joe Hart, failed to get a look in behind Robert Green and David James.
However, Hodgson’s plea largely fell on deaf ears because of the very manner in which England qualified for the World Cup. This was not an imperious passage from a tough group but instead a campaign that saw the Three Lions stumble over the line despite being drawn in a group of distinctly average teams.
Such a luxury, of course, has not been afforded Hodgson’s men in Brazil with even the location of the three group games being a cause for concern.
Manaus, located deep in the Amazon rain forest, was a place no European team wanted to play due to its tropical climate.
It will be hot and sticky, and no England player will have experienced anything like it when he runs out ahead of the opening group game on June 14 against Italy, who at least have had a taste of similar conditions thanks to competing in this year’s Confederations Cup.
Bearing in mind how superior Italy were to England in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, it is difficult to see anything but an Azzurri victory deep in the jungle.
England’s second group game is, thankfully, scheduled for the much more hospitable Sao Paulo. However, with the opposition being Uruguay, semi-finalists in 2010 and, if anything, a team that has improved in the intervening years, a win for Hodgson’s men again looks a tall order against a team featuring Luis Suarez, the Premier League’s outstanding performer this term, and Edinson Cavani, a £50m signing by Paris St Germain.
The odds, therefore, are against England, though if they can escape Group D – most likely as runners-up – Colombia, the most likely winners of Group C, would possibly await in the second round.
That would not look, on paper, as tough an assignment as escaping a group containing Italy and Uruguay. Should England get through that, however, the less than trifling matter of Brazil in the quarter-finals and Argentina in the last four would await. And after that, Spain.
No wonder the bookmakers’ first response to the World Cup draw was to lengthen England’s odds to triumph in Brazil.