With the World Cup now just two and a half months away, and having seen their team qualify for the tournament in style, there is one question that will be on the minds of England fans ahead of football’s biggest party – Do England have a realistic chance of winning the World Cup? The good news is that we do, without a shadow of a doubt. The bad news is that so do Brazil, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Italy, France, the Netherlands and possibly Portugal. The nature of knockout tournaments (especially tournaments with single-legged knockout rounds) is that all it takes is an unfortunate own goal or a poor refereeing decision and you’re out! It doesn’t matter how strong your squad is – whether you’re Brazil or Honduras, any team can be knocked out of the competition in the latter stages instantly, regardless of how well they’ve played in previous rounds. For a team to win the tournament, they need to play consistently well in every knockout match. In recent tournaments, England have either failed to do this, or suffered the heartbreak of being knocked via a penalty shootout. Naturally, the stronger your team the greater your chance of winning the tournament, but the competition is a more open contest than many would believe. Pundits who claim that either Brazil or Spain are nailed on certainties to win this year’s tournament are wrong.
The question for England, and indeed any team with serious ambitions of winning the competition, is whether they can beat the best teams in the world in the latter stages of the tournament. With the group England have, there can be no excuses for not finishing top – Algeria and Slovenia should represent relatively easy victories for England, and the USA, though a better team than the aforementioned, with some quality players, are still in a class below England, and anything less than first position in Group C will be a disappointment on England’s part. If they do this, and assuming Germany top Group D, England will face either Australia, Ghana or Serbia in the last 16. Any one of these teams could progress through their group, but regardless of whom they play, England should (emphasis on the word should!) be capable of advancing to quarter finals, and from this point on, they will need to prove themselves against the best teams in the world. The most likely quarter final opponents would be France, the most likely semi final opponents Brazil, and if England were to make it to the final, their most likely opposition would be Spain.
However, England’s recent performances against the world’s best have left much to be desired. They were outclassed in both the 1-0 defeat by Brazil in Qatar last November, and the 2-0 away defeat by Spain in February 2009. Granted, we beat Germany in Munich under Capello, but England’s major shortcoming, both in friendlies and major tournaments in recent years is an inability to beat the best teams in the world, and this is a concern. For this reason, I can see us overcoming France in the quarter finals, but against a very physically strong and organised Brazilian side under Dunga, I can see England falling short.
That said, anything can happen in the knockout stages, and England arguably have the strongest squad in the competition, bar the Brazilians and the Spaniards. Players such as Wayne Rooney, whose performances this season have been outstanding, may provide the firepower in attack needed to have a chance of beating the likes of Brazil and Spain. Lampard and Gerrard (who for the record can and should play together) provide real quality in midfield in terms of passing, creativity and ultimately goal threat, and England have been solid in defence for many years now, underpinned by the quality of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry in central defence. If the former can remain fit and the latter put the media witch hunt regarding his personal life behind him then they have the potential to form the strongest centre back partnership in the tournament. England’s spine is very strong, reinforced by Gareth Barry in central midfield, but questions still remain as to who should partner Rooney in attack, who should play on the right wing, and also in the full back positions, and time is running out for Fabio Capello to decide on his strongest starting XI. After Wayne Bridge ruled himself out, the fitness of Ashley Cole will be key at left back, and if he chooses to select Glen Johnson and Aaron Lennon on the right flank, England will have an excellent goal threat from this side of the pitch.
Opportunity then beckons for England. They go into the tournament with confidence and with one of the strongest squads they have had since winning the competition in 1966. They’ve played some of their best football in a long time under Capello by playing at a fast tempo, and not being afraid to attack teams, as we saw in both the home and away matches against Croatia in qualifying. If they can replicate this form on the big stage, and play fluid, attacking football against the world’s best, then they have a realistic chance of bringing the trophy home. Fingers crossed!
England’s most likely route to the final:
If they win their group:
Last 16: Ghana/Australia/Serbia
Quarter Final: France
Semi Final: Brazil
If they finish as runners up in their group:
Last 16: Germany
Quarter Final: Argentina
Semi Final: Spain