Roy Hodgson has called on England’s young talents to prove their worth as the World Cup opener against Italy edges ever closer.
After weeks of build-up and preparation, England are at last in Brazil and just four days away from kicking off their campaign in Manaus, a thousand miles up the River Amazon.
Four-time world champions Italy are the opponents in the Group D opener at the Arena Amazonia, just as they were in England’s last match at a major international tournament two years ago.
Then, the Azzurri triumphed on penalties, knocking Hodgson’s side out at the quarter-final juncture of Euro 2012 after an uninspiring 0-0 draw in Kiev.
This, though, is a much more exciting unit and one which the England manager believes is far better placed to succeed – albeit he wants the highly-rated young players to be looked at with more hope than expectation.
“I think it’s very exciting,” Hodgson said. “We have a lot of potential, we have a lot of excitement, a lot belief in this potential.
“But I must advise some kind of caution because, as you know, the players haven’t had much chance in an England shirt to show that potential can be realised.
“I personally think it will be but, before we build people up too much and say how wonderful these young players are, let’s see some very good performances in an England shirt first.
“We know they can do it, we believe they can do it, but let’s just calm ourselves down a little bit before we start saying that we have world-beaters in our squad.
“To be a world-beater, you’ve got to put your international shirt on and play very well.
“I think we have more options [than at Euro 2012]. I think we certainly have more athleticism, we have more pace, more mobility. We have a lot of technical players.
“I certainly am not trying in any way to play down the fact the future looks quite bright and there are some very interesting times ahead for us, I’m sure.”
The likes of Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley have particularly impressed onlookers and Hodgson may well be tempted to throw them in from the start against Italy.
That would certainly be a bold move by the England boss, who was giving little away other than injury updates at the first press conference at their Urca training base.
Hodgson confirmed that, as things stand, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is likely to be the only absentee against the Azzurri, although he expects the midfielder to recover from a medial ligament issue in time to feature against Uruguay.
The other player whose fitness was questioned was captain Steven Gerrard after he dipped out of training early on Monday with an apparent slight groin injury – news that perplexed the England boss.
“Well, I don’t really understand the Steven Gerrard one,” Hodgson said. “Yesterday we did a training session when the players that played [against Honduras] did a warm-down session and I worked with the nine that didn’t take full part in the game.
“My understanding is that they actually did some extra work at the end of the training session so there is absolutely nothing wrong with him, so I don’t really understand that story at all.”
The Gerrard issue was one of just a handful of questions that Hodgson did not play with a straight bat. The one that really got his goat was the first from the Brazilian media, with a journalist suggesting England had complained a lot about the World Cup being in the country and, in particular, the fact they had to head to Manaus. “It is not true that we complained about Manaus and Brazil,” Hodgson snapped.
“Quite the opposite. I think that nonsense should be put to bed straight away.
“I am more than happy to be here now for a second time at a World Cup [having coached Switzerland in 1994], this time the manager of my birthright as a national team.
“We are very, very much looking forward to playing in the World Cup and we will be perfectly happy to play in any city we are given because what we want to do is play here and play against the teams we were drawn against.”