Hodgson positive while England sweat
MANAUS, Brazil -- England's manner of defeat was hardly unfamiliar.
A quality opponent was matched for large portions of a game and given some frights, but then a heavy price was paid for defensive foibles. Next came a frantic but fading chase for an equaliser, in which players of top Premier League class suddenly lost their technique and direction as the aforementioned opponent of doughty poise held them expertly at arm's length.
So was the tale of England's night against Italy. Once Mario Balotelli had scored with 40 minutes to play, they rarely looked capable of conjuring an equaliser. Meanwhile, Italy looked ever more assured as time ticked on.
"It's never easy to take positives when you have lost," a down-but-not-out Roy Hodgson said. "My gut feeling is that we did some very good things. Unfortunately, we conceded that second goal. However hard we tried, we could not produce the necessary quality."
Similar words have been delivered by all of the England manager's predecessors: even World Cup winner Alf Ramsey ending up saying such things. At least Hodgson's team have two games to save themselves. In losing to Costa Rica in Forteleza, Uruguay looked vulnerable to the type of rapid surges England showed off in their impressive first-half attacking performance.
"The fact is that if you lose the first game, you know you have to win the next two," Hodgson said. "There's no way you can drift. We and Uruguay are on the back foot."
However, even if the next two matches are negotiated, few could predict great things for England if more decent opposition should come into view. The hopes and expectations of the happy camp that has been enjoyed in Rio were extinguished by a performance all too familiar for four decades. The English know their fate before international tournaments begin, though the same thing happening repeatedly never makes it much easier. Even Manaus' flashes of flair are almost certainly not enough to prevent a sinking feeling.
While waiting for Hodgson to deliver his postmatch verdict at the news conference in the bowels of the Arena Amazonia, a gallows humour joke was cracked that England might leave Brazil before the delegation of Her Majesty's Press Corps had finished taking their course of anti-malarial tablets.
Upon his eventual arrival, Hodgson argued that his team had played very well indeed. In the first half, Raheem Sterling had looked the player that had been hoped for, once the exciting news of his selection escaped the grapevine earlier in the day. Eventually, though, as time ticked on, he faded like the rest.
"I thought the young players did well, I have to say," Hodgson said. "Sterling was as bright as we hoped he would be. None of those players let me down or let the country down."
The Wayne Rooney question continues to linger, after a performance that featured the sublime -- his pass for Daniel Sturridge's goal -- and the ridiculous -- his dereliction of the covering role with which he was supposed to augment Leighton Baines. Back in England, TV debates raged, but Hodgson leapt to his forward's defence.
"We wanted to get Sterling around (Andrea) Pirlo, and that meant to move Wayne Rooney," Hodgson said in explanation of Rooney's positioning. "It's very harsh if they are going to criticise Rooney because I thought he played well."
Elsewhere, Glen Johnson was not nearly as terrible as he had been in three buildup matches, though on the debit side, Baines put in a showing to make a nation yearn for Ashley Cole's calm.
There are walking wounded, not least among them Hodgson's backroom staff. Physio Gary Lewin's broken ankle, suffered while celebrating Daniel Sturridge's equaliser, ends the veteran magic sponge merchant's tournament.
On the playing side, most of England's players ended the match looking exhausted; Manaus was no place to chase a game. Steven Gerrard looked particularly lacking of energy in the latter stages, especially once Jordan Henderson departed after running himself into the ground.
"The tempo of the game was very fast," Hodgson said. "There were no signs of the game being played at a pace that suited the heat."
That rather begged the question of why his players had not been ordered to conserve more energy for a second half in which the quality of their output dipped significantly below a level to threaten the Italians.
Hodgson was loathe to blame the conditions and even -- and rather oddly -- suggested that his team had dealt with the humidity better than the Italians.
"We should have been tiring until the end of the game," he said. "But we were playing the game in the Italian half. Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi are excellent players, very experienced, and we take our hats off to their skill, but in the second half we dealt with them very well."
He ignored the ease with which Italy's defenders held off England's ever less inventive efforts and the fact that Pirlo had already got his team's job done by those fading moments. Being beaten by superior opposition was no shame for England, and there had been bright moments, but the familiarity of defeat offered bleak hopes for Brazil.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.