Group C: England

With a great manager and strong squad, the Three Lions are two-thirds there – but will they be scythed down by luck?

Three things determine whether a side will be successful at a World Cup: the coach, the squad and circumstance.

England have an A-grade coach in Fabio Capello, and a squad that, with its mix of top-class players and a couple of obvious flaws, can probably be regarded as B+. The two together are enough for optimism; all that remains is for circumstance - injuries, form, refereeing decisions, climate, luck, bedroom shenanigans - to come good.

The climate - the first winter World Cup in which England will have competed for 48 years - should allow them to play at the sort of high tempo that comes naturally, but injuries and form are already reason for concern. The loss of David Beckham (and Michael Owen) was unfortunate, but he would only ever had been a second option; more worrying are the injuries which put question marks over Ashley Cole and Aaron Lennon.

Cole is not merely the country's best left-back, but offers a vital overlapping presence on the wing; Lennon is vital as a source of pace, particularly with Theo Walcott out of the picture. John Terry's mid-season slump and the loss of Rio Ferdinand are a further source of anxiety in an area where England had seemed secure.

Still, if they are fit and firing, and if Wayne Rooney avoids injury, England probably go to South Africa with as good a chance of winning the World Cup as at any time since 1970. Spain and Brazil are better sides, but England are high among the pack of other contenders.

They were hugely impressive in qualifying, winning every game until they were over the line and finishing as top scorers in the European section. The snivellers - of whom there are many, for past disappointment has made cynicism the easiest option where England are concerned - would claim they had an easy path, but it was the only European qualifying group to feature three teams who had played at the previous World Cup; six of the other eight groups only contained one.

Even if Capello has been taken aback by the tabloid obsession with his players' personal lives, he has, by and large, restored discipline after the indulgences of the end of the Sven-Goran Eriksson reign and the stagnation of the Steve McClaren era. Even the players seem to have take up the mood of realism, with Rio Ferdinand admitting they have in the past been "carried away" by the "hype and euphoria".

"The whole circus that followed the England squad last time at the World Cup was a joke, and I wouldn't like to see that again," he said. "It's a distraction and is detrimental to our chances. I love my kids and my missus as much as anybody else, but if it meant me winning the World Cup and not seeing them for four weeks, I'd take that." Would that he had the chance.


Giant steps: Capello shrinks the pitch

Capello had given his side a sense of purpose and tactical rigour, and even seems to have solved the age-old Gerrard-Lampard conundrum by given them clearly defined roles: Frank Lampard as a left-sided holder alongside Gareth Barry, and Steven Gerrard on the left of an attacking midfield trident with licence to cut inside.

Strengths
Rooney is probably the most complete centre-forward in the world, capable of both leading the line and dropping deep or wide to create play, and blessed with the dazzle and the sense of timing to turn games when his side most needs it. He is the key figure in a front six that, if fit, has great balance - as 34 goals in 10 competitive games under Capello suggests.

Weaknesses
The obvious weakness is in goal, where no outstanding candidate has emerged from half a dozen reasonably good ones. Rob Green looks likely to get the nod, but he has had far from an unblemished season.

That is part of a wider concern about the back four, which leaked six goals in 10 qualifiers – not overly troubling, but probably more than they should have conceded given how dominant England at times were. Glen Johnson is yet really to convince at right-back - although England have only the rather reluctant Jamie Carragher as competition - while Ferdinand's absence continues Capello's search for a regular, reliable centre-back pairing.

Then there is the issue of centre-forward and the ongoing Emile Heskey debate. He is a brave, selfless player who creates space for others and Rooney, in particular, seems to relish playing with him, but the fear always lurks that if a chance fell to him at a vital moment, he is as likely to hit the corner-flag as the back of the net. His attributes probably outweigh his flaws, but he is a scapegoat waiting to happen.

Interesting fact
Proportionally, England have drawn more games at World Cup finals than any other side to have reached four or more tournaments.

The Coach: Fabio Capello
A record of nine titles in 14 years with four different clubs across two countries tells its own story. More than that, Capello has done it in a variety of styles - under-defensive with AC Milan in 1993-94, joyously attacking with Roma in 2000-01. He is the arch-pragmatist, a brilliant leader adept at getting the best out of the players he has available.

Key Player: Wayne Rooney
He threatened to lead England to glory at Euro 2004 before a broken metatarsal intervened, and the same injury restricted him at the 2006; this, hopefully, will be his first fully-fit major tournament. If he can reproduce his Manchester United form, it gives England a great chance.

Probable Team (4-2-3-1): Green; Johnson, King, Terry, A Cole; Barry, Lampard; Lennon, Rooney, Gerrard; Heskey

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the players
Q&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation 

Fixtures
USA, June 12, 7.30pm, Rustenburg
Algeria, June 18, 7.30pm, Cape Town
Slovenia, June 23, 3pm, Nelson Mandela Bay

Qualified Top in UEFA Group 6
Andorra (A) 2-0
Croatia (A) 4-1
Kazakhstan (H) 5-1
Belarus (A) 3-1
Ukraine (H) 2-1
Kazakhstan (A) 4-0
Andorra (H) 6-0
Croatia (H) 5-1
Ukraine (A) 0-1
Belarus (H) 3-0

World Cup record
1950 1st Round
1954 Quarter-final
1958 1st Round
1962 Quarter-final
1966 Winners
1970 Quarter-final
1982 Second Round
1986 Quarter-final
1990 Semi-final
1998 Second Round
2002 Quarter-final
2006 Quarter-final

More World Cup stuff: Features * Lists * Interviews

FFT.com: Features * News * Interviews * Home
Interact: Twitter * Facebook * Forum

Topics