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England’s weaknesses exposed in two defeats

by Christopher Davies

Roy Hodgson was like a man who knew his fate, but the inevitable could not be confirmed for a while. Hodgson and England had to wait at least 24 hours after losing 2-1 to Uruguay for the next update on its World Cup future.

If Italy and Costa Rica drew on Friday night, England’s World Cup finals would have lasted seven days of a 31-day competition.

Italy 2, England 1. Uruguay 2, England 1. Two games, zero points. England needs a prayer mat, Italian help and the ability to beat Costa Rica by the required number of goals to advance to the knockout stage. No team has ever lost its opening two games at a World Cup and progressed. History can be a powerful enemy.

“I’ve been really happy with the way the players have responded to the work we’ve tried to do,” said Hodgson, but more realistically continued: “I’m really bitterly disappointed. We came with such high hopes and have not been able to deliver. It is a major sadness for me. I’m numb really — numb with disappointment and sadness that so many hopes and dreams and so much work has been blown away.”

Hodgson was given a four-year contract in May 2012, though few managers would survive potentially the worst World Cup campaign in their country’s history. The reason Hodgson will probably stay on is that there is no natural successor for the Football Association to consider, which says as much about the quality of English coaching as the current England team.

“I don’t feel I need to resign,” said Hodgson. “If the F.A. think I’m not the man for the job, that will be their decision.” He conceded that England’s chances of progressing are “unbelievably thin.” For England fans, despite limited expectations, such an ignominious exit would be unbelievably disappointing.

Nobody expected England to win the World Cup. The quarterfinals were the target, then losing on penalties as England does. But the players Hodgson chose are too good to be that bad to bow out so early.

As one observer said: “I’ve waited years for England to play like Spain, now we are.”

Hodgson’s accountability has divided the nation, but for most England fans Brazil 2014 has been what happens every two years. England qualifies for the European Championship or World Cup, hopes lower after every disappointment This time, England has once again lived down to expectations.

A team from a league as strong and vibrant as the Premier League, even with the influx of overseas players, should be able to make more of a mark on the international stage. England may not have any truly world-class players, but to go out with such a whimper, as seems inevitable, suggests something deeper than the manager needs fixing. For starters, England must take under-age tournaments more seriously to give young players the experience of playing in competitive finals rather than taking them on senior-friendly tours.

My fear for England in Brazil was its inability to keep a clean sheet, even against moderate opposition and so it proved. Its defense and defending was embarrassing at times. Luis Suarez’s winning goal in Uruguay’s deserved victory came when Steven Gerrard back-headed a long clearance from the goalkeeper into his Liverpool teammate’s space.

Almost anticipating what might happen, Suarez then showed the clinical finishing Wayne Rooney and company could not manage. It is not a Suarez assist Gerrard will want to remember.

Gerrard will probably retire from international football after the finals, but a man who has given so much to club and country has had a wretched end to the season. His mistake against Chelsea was pivotal in Liverpool losing the title to Manchester City and his schoolboy error helped Suarez score Uruguay’s winning goal.

Rooney did manage to end a World Cup finals drought of 759 minutes to score his first goal at that level and while there was much discussion about his role in the team, the Manchester United striker is simply not good enough to stand alongside the likes of Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben or even the new guard being produced by Colombia, Germany and France.

With two games played it is difficult to think of one England player who has enhanced his reputation in Brazil. Raheem Sterling promised much but delivered little. Ross Barkley’s limited time as a substitute showed promise, but if that is the best that comes out of Brazil 2014, England has problems.

The tried and trusted like Glen Johnson, Gerrard, Rooney and Danny Welbeck face uncertain international futures. Jordan Henderson is not international standard, Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka will retain their places until someone better comes along, Leighton Baines’ displays underlined Hodgson’s mistake in leaving Ashley Cole at home, and Daniel Sturridge has much to add to his game to be a force at the highest level.

England does not possess the defensive stability, the creativity or invention in midfield or the clinical finishing to beat the best, or even the second best at the highest level. Hodgson is not a coach to take a chance or make bold substitutions, his Plan B is Plan A lite.

Everything had seemed in place to give promise. Public optimism was guarded because of previous failures, but the mood in the England camp was good, though when the real thing began it was the same old story. Another anti-climax. Been there, seen it and failed to do it.

Suarez’s words after his successful comeback from knee surgery to effectively end England’s World Cup hopes revealed much about his burning resentment towards the country where he makes his living. He said: “Before the game too many people in England laughed about my attitude over the last few years. I want to see what they think now.”

The Football Writers’ Association thought enough of Suarez to vote him the overwhelming winner of the Footballer of the Year award last month.

“I dreamt this,” said Suarez. “I’m enjoying this moment, because of all I suffered, the criticism I received.”

Yes, Suarez was criticized for his racist attack on Patrice Evra. Yes, he was criticized for biting Branislav Ivanovic. What on earth did he expect? Praise?

But the nation forgave him for past indiscretions as he showed what a wonderful player he is, scoring the goals that inspired Liverpool to within touching distance of the title.

I suspect we have not heard the last of how the English media and supporters feel about Suarez’s words.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.