Road to Euro 2012
England were unbeaten in qualifying, and after the nightmares of South Africa, Fabio Capello would have taken that, but after a strong start against Bulgaria and Switzerland, there were worrying signs late on in the campaign. Home and away wins over Wales were predictable, but two draws against Montenegro and that home draw against Switzerland were a long way from tournament winning form. Most worrying was that friendly defeat by the Netherlands, in which a young England side showed guts, but also how far short they were of the Dutch standard. It may not make for particularly sexy viewing, but I don't think there's any shame this summer in England fans accepting that their team is probably not good enough. Generational changeovers happen, and England are going through one now. Expectations will be lowered, and I'm not sure that will lead to any surprises.
Excessively safe or shrewd and sensible? No one will know into which category the appointment of Roy Hodgson falls until after the next World Cup, but the good news for him is that he pretty much has a free hit at Euro 2012. If he fails, then even the English media will have plenty of other targets on which to focus: the FA and John Terry for example. Hodgson would have to do an appalling tactical job this summer for his reign to come under any pressure after the tournament.
I'm not going to cite his well travelled achievements, nor will I coo sympathetically at his treatment by Liverpool fans. The thing that I find interesting about Hodgson is his character. This is a man who manages to be both intelligent and courteous while concealing a sharp temper and an inability to suffer fools gladly. He has the steel to do the job and his tactical conservatism might be just what England needs. But he will need a great deal to go his way for England to travel any distance in the tournament.
This is the category which best sums up England's quandary at the Euros. The name in this section should of course be Wayne Rooney, but his absence for the first two matches is a gigantic blow.
Rooney is England's best player, their match winner, their potential inspiration, and he was the major reason behind Manchester United's frankly unlikely title challenge. England's chances were slim with him in the team, but his suspension places them under severe threat of an early elimination.
Hodgson's key player is now Steven Gerrard, who must inspire his country in the way that he has frequently done his club. Gerrard's weakness for Liverpool could just be a strength for England. The fans at Anfield would argue that he's inconsistent these days and doesn't drag a big performance out of the team every week as he used to. The benefit for England is that he needs six big performances to give them a chance of winning the tournament. I like the idea of him playing as a support striker and given licence to charge. With Rooney not around, and the rest of England's strikeforce either unconvincing or out of form, Gerrard has to have a serious chance of being England's top scorer at Euro 2012. The big danger would have been Peter Crouch, but Hodgson has foolishly decided to leave him at home.
If Gerrard is the star, then John Terry would seem to be the natural choice as England's rock. But Terry has struggled so badly at times late on this season that this looks a tournament too far, and so Joe Hart is the player on whom Hodgson can most rely.
Worryingly, there are rumours that Hart has let his raised profile go to his head, and his monosyllabic interviews after the miracle of the Etihad did little to convince otherwise. He's a magnificent goalkeeper though, and the lack of any real competition means that an injury-free career will lead to Hart comfortably becoming England's record caps holder.
The one truly forward thinking selection by England's new manager (Phil Jones doesn't count, as Hodgson HAD to take him) and a player who can definitely make an impact at the tournament. This isn't a Sven Goran Eriksson/Theo Walcott situation, because Oxlade-Chamberlain has the ability to make an impact on the tournament rather than be a passenger, and it was interesting to hear Hodgson praise his performance for Arsenal against Milan in the centre of midfield. Could we see Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing a tiring Scott Parker, Gareth Barry or Frank Lampard late on and being given the freedom to create?
I would never class myself as a "shrewdie", but the prevailing wisdom among them always seems to be that England are a lay at any major tournament as weight of home money leads to them being too short. I hate to be unoriginal, but that is certainly the case here.
Given the Rooney issue, and the paucity of talent at Hodgson's disposal, I'm amazed to see England shorter than France to win their Group at 2.89/5, and intrigued by the logic which leads them to be as short as 1.625/8 to qualify for the quarter finals. The personnel that Hodgson has available does not justify those prices. They're a lay to qualify.
Lay England to qualify for the quarter-finals @ 1.625/8
What the Opta stats say:
Of the last six European Championship finals that England have qualified for, they have failed to get out of the group stage on four of those occasions.
No side scored more goals in the opening 15 minutes of qualifying games for Euro 2012 than England (6).
Nine of the 10 goals that England scored in their final five qualifiers arrived in the first half.
England mustered an average of 9.5 shots (excl. blocked) per game in the qualifiers; lower than any of the other 14 teams that had to qualify.
England have played in the most tournaments without managing to win (seven).
England have lost more games (nine) than they have won (seven) in European Championships finals (seven draws).