Road to Brazil
With a goal difference bettered only by the Netherlands in UEFA qualifying, it initially seems that England's campaign was a walk in the park. That was certainly true of turkey shoots against Group H minnows Moldova and San Marino, but Ukraine and Montenegro proved much trickier tests, with the former finishing just a point behind Roy Hodgson's side.
England required a late Frank Lampard penalty to rescue a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in their second match, and the same scoreline was replicated in tight affairs away to Poland and Montenegro. An uninspiring stalemate in Kiev, which saw Rickie Lambert make his competitive debut in Wayne Rooney's absence, piled the pressure on Hodgson as the public's demand to see more attacking football intensified.
Andros Townsend was on the bench that evening, but stepped into the starting line-up to answer Hodgson's and the nation's call in the final two fixtures. The Tottenham winger will miss the main event in Brazil through injury, but starred with a goal on his debut in the 4-1 rout of Montenegro at Wembley and impressed again as England secured top spot with a 2-0 win over Poland four days later.
Hodgson's plans have changed significantly since the end of the qualifying campaign, with the manager making seven changes to the squad that saw off Montenegro and Poland in October. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley paid for Manchester United's poor season, while Kyle Walker joined Townsend on the injury list. Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson are two of the players who have been promoted and both are tipped to play important roles in Brazil.
This is Roy Hodgson's second World Cup after he took Switzerland to USA '94. The 66-year-old enjoyed an impressive tournament with the Swiss, thrashing Argentina's eventual conquerors Romania 4-1 in the group stage before losing to Spain in the last 16.
Hodgson will be hoping to go further with England, of course, and his preparation has been encouraging. Sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, who contributed to Liverpool's success this season, has joined the squad for the tournament and will hopefully help to solve the Three Lions' penalty woes.
The manager's eagerness to embrace modern methods has also been demonstrated by his use of sports scientists in the recent training camp in Portugal. Each player's individual nutrition needs were monitored as the squad attempted to recreate sweltering conditions in Manaus by training in winter clothing.
"The stuff with the sweat tests I have not experienced before," said Leighton Baines. "It is about ticking all the boxes and put us in the best place we can be, so we are prepared for everything."
There have been questions over Hodgson's perceived lack of adventure in his tactics, but the manager's pragmatism has worked before in tournament settings. He guided Internazionale to the UEFA Cup final in 1997 and repeated the feat with Fulham in 2010, although both teams finished as runners-up - not that England would mind that result in Brazil.
Having managed 16 teams in eight different countries, Hodgson has a wealth of knowledge about the game and is renowned for his studious nature and judicious approach to management. However, he can also be stern when necessary, as Jack Wilshere has previously revealed: "At half-time Roy likes to shout more, trying to motivate us, which I like. The rest of the time he's pretty relaxed, so it's a nice mix."
Despite failing to find the net in eight matches over the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Wayne Rooney remains one of England's most important players and will be looking to break his duck in Brazil. "The last few tournaments haven't gone great for me," said Rooney recently. "I just want to show that I can do well at this level because it's something I haven't been able to do before."
If the Manchester United forward fails to fire, Daniel Sturridge could prove to be a vital alternative in attack. The 24-year-old enjoyed his most impressive season to date in the Premier League, notching 21 goals, although he managed only two strikes in his last six matches following a hamstring injury.
Hodgson is keen to pair Rooney and Sturridge together in England's warm-up games, while there are calls for the manager to try and recreate Liverpool's attacking style. Continuing the Anfield theme, Steven Gerrard's role at the base of midfield will be pivotal to England's chances of getting out of the group.
The pace of Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could also be crucial towards the end of matches as England's opponents start to tire.
As well as Rooney's struggles on the biggest stage, England could face problems in defence, where a lack of tournament experience is a concern. Ashley Cole immediately retired from international duty after he was omitted from the squad and Baines has much to prove as his replacement in the first XI.
Another issue for Hodgson to address is whether he chooses to start Sterling following the 19-year-old's superb end to the season with Liverpool. If he shows caution and selects James Milner ahead of Sterling for the opening match against Italy, then Hodgson is likely to attract plenty of criticism.
Possibly the most significant talking point regarding England comes from outside the Three Lions' camp. There is a lot riding on Luis Suarez's fitness race in Group D, and Hodgson will no doubt be keeping his fingers crossed that the striker doesn't make a full recovery from his knee injury in time for England's clash with Uruguay on June 19th.
Not much has been said about penalties at this stage, but as always, there is a good chance we'll be crying about them at the end. You can get [10.0] about England being eliminated via a shootout.
There isn't the usual level of expectation surrounding England's chances in Brazil, but [3.45] on Roy Hodgson's side to top Group D should tempt optimistic souls such as myself, with the [2.5] on them remaining unbeaten for the three games also worth considering. It shouldn't be forgotten that Italy finished bottom of a group that contained New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay in 2010, while Uruguay required a play-off against Jordan to reach this summer's tournament. Meanwhile, England haven't lost a group stage match at the World Cup since a 2-1 defeat to Romania in 1998.
Considering the sweaty conditions in Manaus, odds of around [3.0] on the draw in the opener v Italy are worth a punt or, if you're looking for a bit more juice in the price, the [7.0] on 0-0 correct score looks fair.
England's chances in Brazil are summed up by Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge being listed at around [60.0] to win the Golden Boot. Even at those prices, most will probably ignore England's strikers in the top-scorer stakes, but my fancy is tickled by Danny Welbeck to be the team's leading marksman at around [11.0]. The forward is a favourite of Hodgson and has a decent record of eight strikes in 21 caps.
Rooney to score first in a draw against Italy is priced at 25/1 on the Sportsbook Wincast market, and it would be just like England to get everyone's hopes up before snatching them away again.
Did You Know?
Wayne Rooney has more competitive goals for England (28) than any other player, with Michael Owen (26) and Gary Lineker (22) next in line.