With the World Cup only around two weeks away from starting, teams are beginning to play their warm-up games as national coaches try to find a winning combination. England's build-up gets underway with a friendly against Peru on Friday night, with their tournament opener arriving against Italy on June 14.
England boss Roy Hodgson has already admitted that there will be no excuses if the Three Lions fail at the World Cup, which presumably will mean if they do not get out of a tricky Group D also containing Uruguay and Costa Rica. Michael Owen is confident that England will get through with Uruguay, but as one of the two teams in the group outside the world's top 10, do England really have a chance?
1. Right manager?
© Getty Images
Usually for international tournaments the home press and bookmakers tend to overestimate England's chances and they tend to be put in the mix of the top five or so favourites. This time, in no uncertain terms, the Three Lions are outsiders. Very few people expect England to get beyond the last 16 if they even get that far, which means manager Hodgson has the small task of proving all his doubters wrong. He is not blessed with a particularly strong squad, but this is the sort of situation he thrives upon.
Looking at his most recent managerial experience his best work has come without the pressure of expectation. He masterminded a great escape at Fulham before guiding them into Europe and their first major European final a couple of years before helping West Bromwich Albion to their most impressive away record in the Premier League. In the middle was a spell at Liverpool where he was deemed to have underachieved. Certainly, however, England are more the West Brom or Fulham of the international world than the Liverpool.
2. Key opponents
Each team that England will take on in Group D will pose a different kind of threat, but all have players capable of hurting them. On paper, England will really be up against it against the strike force of Uruguay, which includes only the Premier League top scorer Luis Suarez and one of the most expensive players in the world in Edinson Cavani of Paris Saint-Germain. The Three Lions will be drilled, however, so expect chances to be limited to the two dangermen. They are the sort who can take their only chance of a game, of course.
© Getty Images
Italy's squad has yet to be finalised with the June 2 deadline on the horizon, but one thing is for sure is that it's a strong mix of youth and experience. They look to be a big threat in the central midfield area where the likes of Andrea Pirlo - who has tortured England in the past - operates. Hodgson's midfield selection for the opening game will be crucial. Costa Rica's big threat will be Fulham's Bryan Ruiz. He may have failed to perform in the Premier League, but the national team revolves around him and on the international stage he is able to step it up.
3. The squad
One thing that England have lacked in recent tournaments is a player who has been able to up their game on the big stage. It was supposed to be Wayne Rooney, but injuries and confidence kept his last two performances in tournament down to just bit-part roles. He is fit and motivated for Brazil, but he will certainly need to prove this if England are to better either Italy or Uruguay.
Hodgson has selected a good blend of young players and experienced ones and in some cases - Luke Shaw at left-back, for example - has trusted youth over age. There are concerns in the squad, however, namely a weakness in central defence and several untested wingers such as Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Hodgson can certainly cobble together a competitive XI but, should they progress through the tournament, is the whole squad strong enough?
© Getty Images
SM's prediction: Uruguay have a very strong attack but their squad is weighted heavily in favour of forwards - they can certainly be beaten tactically and Hodgson is the man to achieve this. Italy may not have the strongest team they have ever had, but this is a nation of perennial finalists and they cannot be ruled out and it would be a big surprise if they do not get out of the group. With that in mind it could be between Uruguay and England for the second spot, and with Hodgson at the helm the Three Lions do have a real chance.