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Jun 8, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: England

ESPN FC's Craig Burley gives his take on England's chances of making it out of the group stage at the World Cup in Brazil.

Group D | Uruguay | Costa Rica | Italy


Team DNA

Perhaps England's greatest problem in recent tournament history has been a confusion of styles. Most of the squad are used to playing a circumspect passing game with the Premier League's leading lights; yet, when they get together, the long-ball game is never far from the surface.

Possession football does not come easy to the English; the instinct to get the ball forward kicks in soon. The switch from ponderous to overzealous is all too common. And a group of players that has looked like world-beaters with their respective clubs and in European competitions never quite seems to jell.

- 32 Teams in 32 Days: Country-by-country previews

- #WorldCupRank: No. 14 Wayne Rooney

- World Cup blog: England updates

Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have excelled in the Champions League, but never for their country on the biggest stage. The usual pattern of an England World Cup outing is they possess enough quality to make the round of 16, but then the team breaks down at the first genuine challenge.

A narrow lead is defended with ever-increasing desperation, before the concession of an equalizer. This is followed by penalties, usually via a hard-luck story of a disallowed goal or sending off. Then, England lose. This may be bleak reading, but the story is all too familiar.

Starting scenario

History

England did not enter the first three World Cups (1930, 1934 1938), and although FIFA assiduously sought their participation, the Football Association declined all invitations. Not until the fourth tournament in 1950 did England take part.

This will be their 14th World Cup appearance. England won it all in 1966, the same year they served as host. Their best finish since was 1990, when they finished fourth overall after losing to West Germany in the semis on penalties.

How they reached Brazil

Group H was a very narrow squeak for England manager Roy Hodgson, whose style did not allow the sweep to qualification that Fabio Capello enjoyed for the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros.

England did not lose a single match, but an opening home draw against Ukraine and three away draws in Poland, Montenegro and Ukraine put the pressure on, mostly because of how poorly England played in each of them. The final away trip to Kiev was played out to a draw, which set up two fateful home games to win the group.

They booked a trip to Brazil by forgotten hero Andros Townsend, who will be absent from the World Cup after an ankle injury followed a severe drop in home form. The Spurs winger's direct running served to ease nerves, as England easily beat Montenegro (4-1) and Poland (2-0). Gerrard's late goal in the latter match secured progress for their fifth consecutive Cup appearance.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

It is difficult to see England's opening match against Italy being anything other than a draw. Both teams are known for starting slowly at tournaments and neither Cesare Prandelli nor Hodgson are managers to throw caution to the wind.

Which leaves the rather difficult assignment of beating Uruguay in Sao Paulo. The South Americans' acquaintance with the conditions is a definite problem for the English, who have been trying to acclimate themselves for the more humid conditions via the novel approach of wearing multiple tracksuits during an unseasonably cold Algarve training camp.

Uruguay will always keep it tight at the back and hit on the break, even if Luis Suarez's meniscus problem prevents him from playing against his adopted home. If he does, then Suarez will no doubt play with a point to prove.

The shape of the draw means England will have to reach the quarterfinals for them to be able to play traditional rivals like Germany or Argentina.

Wayne Rooney carried the scoring load for England during qualifying. Will he be able to guide the Three Lions out of Group D?

Most important player

England have craved for a proper line-leading striker since Alan Shearer retired from international football in 2000. Emile Heskey was a willing worker to make space for the likes of Michael Owen, but Heskey never scored nearly enough goals.

Now, with Rooney remaining the creative fulcrum, someone needs to dovetail with him. Daniel Sturridge is a modern forward capable of playing across the front line, but is also a significant scoring threat. He holds the ball up well enough and can operate as a lone striker. There are signs of an understanding with Rooney, who has rarely played well as a lone front man for England. And Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling are all Liverpool clubmates on Sturridge's radar.

In the 18 months since Sturridge joined Liverpool, the intense mental preparation he puts in with Dr. Steve Peters has made him a striker of stature and the player he was expected to be as a teenager. Sturridge's previous tournament experience lies only in the U-21 Euros and the 2012 London Olympics, but the 24-year-old should be the breakthrough player in Brazil.

Definition of success

Anything that breaks the aforementioned chain of failure must be considered a success. The 2012 Euros are remembered for the pain of losing on -- yes -- penalties to Italy, but it was actually a creditable tournament performance.

- Video: England odds in World Cup (Australia only)

Advancing to the round of 16 is a minimum requirement, and actually beating a decent team there would seem unprecedented. The last top-grade opponent England beat at a tournament was Spain in the quarterfinals of the 1996 Euros -- on penalties, oddly enough.

How far will England go?

The round of 16, where they'll lose on penalties.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Steve McManaman

Ahh, the mighty English! They qualified comfortably enough in the end, but they really bumbled their way through. England saved their best two performances for last with home wins against Montenegro (4-1) and Poland (2-0). In June they'll need similar performances from captain Steven Gerrard and striker Wayne Rooney, who combined for three goals in those games. Those two pushed forward, and it made all the players more attack-minded.

I always feel English players think, "I can't make a mistake." So, rather than trying things out and being confident, they go for the easy ball instead of something a bit more exciting. You want to see a team go forward and take people on and score nice goals. But unfortunately, England doesn't have that.

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