England’s players may have left the draining conditions of Manaus and returned to Rio beaten by Italy in their first World Cup game – but this was a defeat that felt different.
When England flew home from South Africa four years ago it was after a campaign that died of boredom and incompetence under the austere “Camp Capello” regime. Here there was boldness and a sense of adventure, even if Roy Hodgson’s side left the Amazonian rainforest empty-handed.
The 2-1 loss to the Azzurri will have been painful and damaging but there was at least a sense that England had provided cause for optimism and hope they may yet navigate a route out of this tough Group D.
Now they face Uruguay in Sao Paulo on Thursday knowing the losers are almost certainly on their way out – so what are the issues to ponder for Hodgson and his players?
Hodgson should be hopeful
There is little good news about losing an opening World Cup game and England may yet live to regret the missed chances and sloppy defending that ended in defeat by Italy.
Hodgson, however, was accentuating the positive and was right to do so – while accepting it is tough to put a gloss on a result that instantly puts England on the back foot.
England were positive and played with a sense of adventure, albeit with added vulnerability, and can still take plenty that is good into what is likely to be a defining game against Uruguay.
Few believe England will win this World Cup so one of the factors that may shape judgement of Hodgson and his squad of young players is whether they offer hope for the future. This performance did and there is still the enticing possibility that they could yet reach the last 16 in spite of it.
Sterling’s successful selection
Would Roy Hodgson be bold or cautious? The answer to this question, it became clear as the build-up to the World Cup took shape, was always going to be Raheem Sterling.
Leave Sterling out and it would be cautious old Roy. Play Sterling and this is bold Roy, throwing off the cloak of conservatism and going for it.
When news emerged in the hours before the game that the Liverpool man had been selected, it was greeted with delight by almost every observer – the right decision for the right occasion.
The teenager almost made his mark, and warned Italy of his threat, in the opening moments with a run at pace and a rising shot that hit the side-netting and had many inside the stadium believing he had scored.
Yes, he may have lost possession a few times in attacking positions but Sterling’s fearless approach and willingness to run at the opposition, whether it was in his initial role behind the striker or from out wide, has ensured his place against the Uruguayans.
Hodgson has barely been able to contain his enthusiasm for Sterling’s work since training sessions at Miami’s Barry University and this display lived up to those references.
Should Rooney keep his place?
Rooney’s peripheral role against Italy will keep the debate alive – although Hodgson was staunch in his defence of the Manchester United striker’s performance.
In Rooney’s defence, he was playing in a position he tolerates rather than enjoys and it showed in particular in the first half, when Leighton Baines was offered little or no protection as Italy prodded away at England’s left flank.
And yet it was also from there that Rooney provided a perfect cross for Daniel Sturridge’s equaliser. This is the quality that marks him out.
Rooney worked hard enough but there is still a sense of waste about him being used on the flank and this is where the problem may arise for Hodgson.
Having employed Sterling, with success, in that role just behind the striker, will he shuffle his team around to accommodate Rooney there? It is one option open to Hodgson.
Sterling was moved out wide when England made changes, with Everton’s Ross Barkley producing another impressive cameo that almost brought an equaliser.
So will Barkley emerge as more of a contender to fill that central role than Rooney as the World Cup progresses with Hodgson considering moving Sterling wider?
For now, it seems, Hodgson is satisfied and it would be a huge call to remove Rooney from a game that could decide England’s World Cup.
Rooney is probably safe for now – but for how much longer?
England must stop defensive lapses
England gained plenty of plus marks for their attacking work but it was in defence where the problems lay.
It is highly unlikely Hodgson will change this settled part of his side but it is unusual to see a team of his look this frail at the back.
Phil Jagielka was excellent, his performance including one superb goalline clearance from Mario Balotelli, but central defensive partner Gary Cahill’s night was spoiled when he lost Italy’s striker for his match-winning header.
Did you know?
*Stats from Opta
Daniel Sturridge has scored in three of his last four appearances for England.
Wayne Rooney’s assist for Sturridge was the first time he has contributed to a goal in the World Cup (in his ninth appearance).
England had 18 shots in this game, up from nine in 120 minutes vs Italy at Euro 2012.
Only four of 46 sides to lose their opening group game since 1998 have gone on to qualify for the knockout stages (Spain in 2010, Ukraine and Ghana in 2006 and Turkey in 2002).
Andrea Pirlo made 108 passes, the most so far in a 2014 World Cup match. De Rossi also topped 100 passes (105).
Italy have scored in each of their last 15 World Cup matches, an Italian record and the longest current run of any side in the World Cup.
The main difficulties came at left-back, where Everton’s Leighton Baines had the sort of tough night that might get the name of Ashley Cole mentioned in the coming days.
There were mitigating circumstances for Baines. His partnership with Rooney is an unfamiliar one and it showed. The situation improved as the game went on but not before England’s vulnerable left flank proved the route Italy took to their winning goal.
Do not expect changes in defence but Hodgson will no doubt be weighing up how he can provide Baines with greater cover.
Can England still get out of Group D?
If they can repeat the performance against Italy and address those defensive difficulties, the answer has to be a resounding ‘yes.’
Uruguay looked vulnerable once Costa Rica got into their stride and they showed nothing to hold terrors for England provided they take care of their own business.
The wild card, of course, is Liverpool’s Luis Suarez. How fit is he after knee surgery? Will he play?
It is obvious Suarez is a long way from full fitness otherwise he would have been on as a substitute the instant Uruguay went behind. It looks clear it would be a gamble to select him in Sao Paulo but the Uruguayans are in the same urgent situation as England, which must increase the chances.
And once Suarez is on the pitch, anything can happen. If he makes it against England he will be a huge threat.
Uruguay, however, looked very beatable and England will feel they can score goals against them, which could set up that final meeting with Costa Rica, who were highly impressive and will have something to play for when they face England.
Life is now tough for England – but not impossible.