World Cup Blog: Still hope for England despite Italy defeat
01:12 15 June 2014
PA Wire/Press Association Images
England 1 Italy 2
England expects is always the shout when the nation goes into a major tournament, only to be hit by reality and misery in equal measure.
This time round, there were few who gave Roy Hodgson’s men a hope, many thought they wouldn’t get out of the group, a sense of sensible proportion seemed to have been added to the England psyche.
That is until the final few days before the first game. TV pundits determined to big up England’s chances were predicting victory over the experienced Italians. The Azzurri never start tournaments well, they are too old and will wilt in the Manaus heat. England have the pace to cause Italy all sorts of problems.
Once again, England were being built up for a fall and with a dreadful record against an Italian side with Andrea Pirlo at its heart, this was always going to be a tough opening fixture.
There is always hope though, that is the hardest thing sometimes. Armed with my newly acquired Three Lions t-shirt (£8 from Asda!) I was swept along by the confidence of Alan Shearer and Rio Ferdinand on the panel and for a while I believed that we could do it.
I should know better. Having travelled to watch England in Italia ‘90 and France ‘98, I should know not to expect too much, especially early in a tournament.
England certainly looked the part going forward, but at the back it was the same old story as Italy scored from a corner and then a cross to the far post for Mario Balotelli to head home a goal that Andy Carroll would have been proud of.
With Costa Rica having shocked Uruguay earlier in the evening, it was difficult to work out what sort of a result would be most beneficial for England and Italy.
England started brightly and conjured up more shots in the opening few minutes than they usually manage in an entire match.
Perhaps it was Brazil fever rubbing off on them, but Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Danny Welbeck all went close with shots from range, while Welbeck also muscled his way into the box and squared only to see an Italian defender desperaretely hack the ball away.
But while England looked dangerous, Italy looked cool and composed and with their wing backs having great success down the flanks against the isolated Glen Johnson and Leighton Baines, they were looking capable too.
Just as the game seemed to be slowing, it burst into life with two goals in 90 seconds.
First Claudio Marchisio shot through a crowd of players to beat Joe Hart from the edge of the box, but then Wayne Rooney, largely ineffective to that point, crossed superbly for Daniel Sturridge to finish with aplomb.
Italy hit the post and had another effort headed away from under his own bar by Phil Jagielka, but early in the second half, Balotelli pounced with a header to put the Italians back in front.
Normally, that would be it. An England under Sven would have crumbled, an England under Capello would have settled for a 2-1 defeat, while an England under McLaren wouldn’t have got there in the first place.
But this England battled hard and really had a go.
You certainly couldn’t criticise Hodgson. He picked an attacking team that hurt the Italians and he was equally positive with his substitutions, bringing on young starlets Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and Adam Lallana as they tried to salvage a draw their endeavour probably deserved.
Despite his outward appearance and quiet voice, Hodgson is a bold manager, who identifies where his team’s strength lies. It is just a shame that he hasn’t been blessed with a better quality defence to keep things quiet at the other end.
Rooney had one glorious chance, Baines and Barkley saw shots palmed away, Gerrard put a free kick over, but all the time we knew didn’t we? We knew that England would never come back, that Italy would never surrender their lead, they are too exprienced, too canny, too, too Italian.
One game gone and both England and Uruguay are pointless. They meet on Thursday and in reality a draw is not much use to either side, another defeat for either and they will be packing their bags.
On the way the two teams played, England should be favourites to beat their South American opponents, but the propsect of Luis Suarez climbing off the bench to send England home early is one that it is difficult to get out of my head.
Still, let’s stay hopeful. The Three Lions t-shirt will be washed and ready for the next game and the hope will still be there - the hope is always there.
*Harry Kemble will be watching France v Honduras on Sunday. Follow @London24Sport on Twitter and read his blog on this website tomorrow.