Match 16
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LIVE 76'
Match 15
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6:00 PM UTC
Match 17
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12:00 PM UTC Jun 20, 2018
Match 19
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Saudi Arabia
3:00 PM UTC Jun 20, 2018
Match 18
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6:00 PM UTC Jun 20, 2018
Match 20
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Spanish FA was right to fire Lopetegui


How Panama made World Cup dream a reality

 By Nick Miller

England attackers shine but John Stones and defence must focus

England have been much better at providing hope than actually winning anything over the years.

A quick look through some other pre-tournament friendly wins might explain why Roy Hodgson, while delighted with their 3-2 win over Germany in Berlin on Saturday, didn't get excessively carried away with the victory.

A few months before the 2006 World Cup, a Michael Owen brace saw them beat Argentina. In the lead-up to Euro 2012, Spain were beaten 1-0 at Wembley, while the victory in the Olympiastadion was England's third in their last three trips to Germany.

Ultimately those friendly victories all turned out to mean little, so with Euro 2016 looming, will it be different this time?

Watching this thrilling collection of mostly young players charge through the world champions, having gone 2-0 down, it was virtually impossible not to get a little caught up in the pulses of optimism that emanated from this genuinely exciting team.

How could you not be filled with hope as the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy made merry against the best team in the world, to the point where their captain and scorer of seven goals in qualifying, Wayne Rooney, will have quite a task on his hands getting back into the team?

There's plenty to be legitimately negative about in football today, so you would forgive any England fan who was stirred, perhaps a little excessively, by the way they played in Berlin.

As ever with England, though, there are a couple of things to gently cover any sparks of optimism with a damp towel, not least the gloomy memory of just about every major tournament in recent times, which have all at some point offered something to be hyped and become enthused about, only for that to be briskly dashed when the games actually start.

There is also something more logical and straightforward to suggest that England shouldn't be listed among the favourites to succeed in France, namely their defence.

Perhaps you shouldn't be too harsh that they conceded two goals to an attack featuring Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus, Thomas Muller and a resurgent Mario Gomez, but it was the manner in which those goals were allowed that may trouble anyone thinking about backing England.

Toni Kroos and Gomez were allowed far too much space for the goals that counted, likewise the forward for another that was incorrectly ruled out. There was a constant sense of vulnerability whenever Germany went forward that had little to do with an overpowering sense of their attacking force, the feeling that piercing this England backline was a little like punching a hole in a damp piece of paper.

Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill were the central defensive partnership, two players whose domestic seasons have been, to say the least, up and down, while full-backs Danny Rose and Nathaniel Clyne must also take some of the blame, even if they balanced things out with some good work in attack.

These are not the only options, of course, but unlike the days when England had so many central defensive options that Ledley King could barely get close to the side, Hodgson does not have too many alternatives available. The most obvious, John Stones, will get his chance against Netherlands at Wembley on Tuesday, alongside his club colleague Phil Jagielka, but even then there are question marks about the Everton defender.

"We believe in John Stones," said Hodgson. "But it's up to him. Firstly he's got to play well enough to break into his club side, and then he's got to make certain that he's so good with us, we'll consider moving Cahill and Smalling.

"All I can do is give him the encouragement and make certain that he knows how much we believe in him, and that we think he is a very talented player."

Talented he might be, but Stones has been on the bench for Everton in the last couple of games -- an Everton side who have conceded more Premier League goals than anyone except the bottom four and Bournemouth -- after a few too many mistakes seemingly cancelled out his ball-playing abilities.

When even Roberto Martinez thinks you make too many errors at the back, it's perhaps time to worry.

Nevertheless, Stones certainly fits the profile of the defender Hodgson seems to have in mind. When discussing improvements to the performance against Germany, he spoke of wanting to play the ball out from the back more and encouraging his defenders to not be scared of making mistakes while doing so. A confident Stones would rub his hands together upon hearing those words, but you wonder how the Everton man will react having just been dropped by his club side.

"Not so long ago he was being touted around as the best centre-back in the country," said Hodgson.

"People were saying: 'Look how good he is on the ball, look how composed he is.' Then he makes a couple of mistakes and all of a sudden we want to throw that away. I expect him to keep doing what he's good at but consistently improve his game, but that does not mean you've got to change your game completely and start booting the ball up the field all the time. It just means you've got to improve and cut out some of the mistakes."

In theory, Stones would seem to fit this aspect of England rather well, but they still need someone with a little defensive organisation to shore things up and make sure fewer gaping holes open up in their backline.

The bad news for Hodgson is that player doesn't immediately present himself, so he will have to make do and hope what he has improves before June.

England's fine young attackers showed what they could do against Germany. Now, against Netherlands, it's the defenders' turn. Perhaps only then will we be able to properly assess their chances this summer.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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