The group stages are over, and with one flick of Wayne Rooney’s hairsprayed noggin, England have somehow topped Group D. Having in many ways exceeded the fans’ uncharacteristically low expectations, the question on everyone’s lips now is how far can we go?
The Dutch are out and many of the big teams floundering, while the karma Frank Lampard earned in 2010 came back to bite Ukraine in a perfect demonstration of how pointless UEFA’s goalline officials are. We look into our murky crystal ball and wonder: Can England win the European Championships for the first time?
- We appear to have a cohesive gameplan.
For years England have been hampered by the reputation and egos of the superstars. We have had so many “undroppable” players that managers have been forced to put square pegs into round holes. The incompatibility of Lampard and Gerrard being a prime example of this. Now, with Rooney arguably our only world class player, there is a refreshing lack of “automatic selections”, meaning that Roy Hodgson can pick the players most suited to the job in hand. As a direct result of this, we actually now have a shape to the side. Steven Gerrard has sacrificed his more attacking instincts and is flourishing in a more understated role alongside human barricade Scott Parker. Everyone seems to know what they are doing. It’s a novel concept.
- The players are playing without pressure for once.
Normally by the time England have qualified from a group (indeed often before the tournament has even started), the media and the vast majority of the fans seem to have decided that we should win the cup. Anything else is abject failure. The reality of the situation is that England are a “quarter final team”, that is our benchmark. This time round, with the instability and injuries taking their toll, we have done the total opposite and written ourselves off. With expectations duly lowered, the players can express themselves more on the pitch, free from the fear of being booed by their own fans. Which should help Mr Rooney keep his hair on.
- We have attacking options off the bench.
As the Sweden game demonstrated, we have got potentially game-changing attacking options on the subs bench. Assuming that the team picked for last night’s game againstUkraine is out strongest XI, Hodgson can throw on the varying threats of Andy Carroll, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the situation sees fit. Furthermore,Roy appears to have the tactical nous to judge when the right time is to introduce them. In tight games against more organised teams like Italy and Germany, this could prove crucial.
- The Euros throws up quirky winners.
Of the last five tournaments, two of the winners have been the biggest outsiders in the field at the start. Add to that the unfancied Czechs reaching the final in 1996 and there’s a clear message that reputation isn’t the be-all and end-all of this competition. Could England be the new Greece? Well, that’s probably up to George Osborne, but in football terms there’s every hope.
- Only Germany have looked ominous so far.
France have been fairly toothless, Spain have lacked a focal point in the absence of David Villa, Holland are out, Portugal are porous and Italy’s main striker is liable to self-combust at any moment. Only the old enemy have looked like the real deal so far. As commentators bemoan the lack of star quality at this tournament, there has never been a better time to be “solid and dependable”…
- This is still a weak squad.
The flipside of the lack of egos in the squad is that this is arguably the least naturally gifted bunch to represent England in twenty years. Particularly in midfield, there’s an overriding fear that an injury to Gerrard or Parker throws up the terrifying prospect of Jordan Henderson starting. Cast your eye over the benches of Spain (Fabregas, Navas, Llorente, Mata) or Germany (Klose, Gotze, Kroos) and suddenly our options look a lot less convincing.
- Performances so far have been unconvincing.
While there’s no denying that the results have been pretty good so far, the performances have not been much to shout about. Whether we defended well and attacked badly (France), defended badly and attacked well (Sweden), or did both pretty badly (Ukraine), there has not been one all-round performance that will have worried the big guns.
- Tough route to victory.
Italy, Germany, Spain. That is the most likely list of fixtures facing the team on their quest for victory. Pretty intimidating it is too. Three of the last six Euros finalists – and it’s worth noting that the other three (France, Greece and Portugal) are alternatives – potentially lie in wait. Add to that the fact that Spain and Italy are the last two World Cup winners and it’s clear that in terms of tournament pedigree we are somewhat lacking. Additionally, the draw has set up a potential semi against Germany, which it is traditional for us to agonisingly lose.
So a few pros and cons there for you. Of course there are many more reasons why we won’t win the tournament (mainly that gallant failure is as much a part of our national identity as fish and chips), but the sun is shining and I’m full of hopeless optimism.
Realistically, I think Roy’s journey will end with defeat to Germany in the semi-finals, but there would be no shame in that. Indeed, even if we lose to Italy on Sunday, Hodgson can look back this tournament as progress.
Can we win it? Unlikely. However in the words of Lloyd Chrstmas from Dumb & Dumber… There’s still a chance!
Let us know your thoughts below…
by Harry Harland