Jim White

Expect Milner, not Sterling, to start against Italy

Jim White

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At least the pitch is looking nice and green. The groundsman at Manaus, faced with a playing surface that looked as if someone had assaulted it with a blow torch, got out his paint brush and applied a thick coating of green emulsion. Let’s just hope Roy Hodgson has packed some paint stripper, as his players are going to end up with green feet come the end of the game.

But then, as Wayne Rooney said, it is not as if Italy will be playing on a different pitch. Both teams will be facing the same conditions. Both teams will be in temperatures more akin to a bread oven, running around in a sauna, trying to kick a ball on a playing surface better suited to off-road rallying. Adapting to conditions is part of the process: whoever does it more effectively has the advantage.

Indeed, it was good to hear that none of the England set-up were seeking to make excuses ahead of their kick off with Italy. That is the thing about this squad and manager: they seem to be suffused with an unusual realism. No whinging, no complaining, no assumptions, just get on with it.

And get on with it they will need to do. A point is the minimum requirement if they are to have hope of progress out of the group. Especially as Costa Rica are by no means the pushovers that some assume.

Hodgson’s preparations have been somewhat challenged by the injury to Danny Welbeck. The United utility forward was undoubtedly ear-marked in the manager’s mind to do a marking job on Andrea Pirlo. The elegant Juventus midfielder is the well-spring of all Italian creativity, sitting in front of his back four, pulling strings and apparently operating in a completely different time scale from anyone else on the pitch. He never appears to move, certainly not to engage in anything as inelegant as sprinting. Yet no-one can get the ball off him. Reducing the space in which he can manoeuvre is the best way to stifle his influence. And Welbeck is an expert at doing that, a workhorse prepared to subsume his ego into the team ethic.

With Welbeck touch and go as a starter, the clamour for Hodgson to include Raheem Sterling is understandable. The Liverpool winger offers pace, directness and a much more substantial goal threat than his United counterpart. But the destructive element of his game is less developed. Which is why Hodgson is more likely to start with James Milner, who will cheerfully run himself into the ground in the pursuit of Pirlo.

With the back four picking itself, and with Gerrard and Henderson established as the holding midfielders, that makes a likely front four of Lallana, Rooney and Milner playing behind Sturridge. It is not a threat that will have alarmed the Italians, who will have watched the games against Ecuador and Honduras without losing too much sleep. Italy themselves concluded their warm up with a 5-2 victory against the Brazilian club side Fluminese, which somewhat belied their reputation as parsimonious in front of goal.

For England to get anything out of the jungle, it is obvious that they need to be absolutely at the top of their game. This may not be a vintage Italian side, but they are more than canny enough to see off a lacklustre England performance. Imagine the damage Mario Balotelli could unleash if Jagielka and Chaill are not engaged. Equally, England can only hope Daniel Sturridge got all his missed chances out of his system against Honduras.

Hodgson has done a fine job so far in keeping his squad occupied, motivated and focussed. The trip into the Rio favela in which Sturridge and Welbeck did a bit of capoeira was both well-judged and well executed. Press conferences have been conducted without the angst and suspicion of the past. Players like Rooney have spoken well of the need to achieve. For once there is a sense of proportion, a sense of reality, a sense that this may at last be an English side which plays greater than the sum of its parts rather the other way round.

But now, the talking is about to end. Now they have to turn up. Now they have to battle the heat, the humidity, the green paint. Otherwise, what is the point?

Jim White will be blogging throughout the tournament in Brazil for Eurosport.

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