ROY HODGSON touched down in Rio de Janeiro and issued a calming message to those who were unimpressed by England’s back-to-back draws against Ecuador and Honduras.
England rounded off their week-long stay in Miami with a storm-affected goalless stalemate against Honduras.
That draw came three days after England failed to beat Ecuador, who exposed England’s defensive frailties on the counter-attack.
Much harder opposition lie in wait for Hodgson’s men in Brazil. On Saturday, they face four-time world champions Italy and they then tackle Uruguay before a final game against Costa Rica.
Hodgson insists very little should be read into the friendlies. “I have to say these warm-up games, I don’t know that they necessarily answer many questions,” the England manager said. “You answer your questions over a long period of time. When I look at the other warm-up games I am pretty certain I am not alone in thinking it’s just a way of getting yourself to Rio where the real tournament begins.”
Referee Ricardo Salazar showed Honduras players five yellow cards on Saturday, including two for Brayan Beckeles, who was sent off in the 66th minute for a flying elbow on Leighton Baines. It was therefore something of a surprise that England did not pick up any injuries. There were more plus points, too. Danny Welbeck silenced his critics with a good performance, while Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana did their selection chances no harm either.
Four years ago, England arrived at the World Cup in the eye of a storm created by injuries to key players, Fabio Capello’s contract negotiations and the embarrassment caused by the Capello Index. This time the squad appears united and their only injury concern is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has travelled to Brazil despite suffering medial knee ligament damage against Ecuador. “It has been three excellent weeks of preparation,” Hodgson added. “The squad is growing stronger, they are bonding together very well and the mood is one of quiet optimism and a reasonable degree of confidence. That is all you can hope for. Now is when the real football begins and I am happy that we are in good spirits and the players have really done as much as we could ask of them.”
Jon Flanagan and John Stones have now left after spending the last three weeks with the squad. The standby duo have been told they could be called up at any time though, if Oxlade-Chamberlain does not demonstrate sufficient progress in his recovery from the injury to his right knee.
Hodgson has until Friday to decide whether he will replace Oxlade- Chamberlain, and for now he is positive about the midfielder’s chances of playing some part in the tournament.
“That is what we are hoping for,” he said. “But there are still a few assessments to be made on him so I wouldn’t want to suggest that is a stone-wall certainty.”
After their overnight flight from Miami, England checked into their hotel near Ipanema beach yesterday.
Preparation for the Italy game will begin in earnest today, when England will hold a fully-open session at their training centre at the Urca military base in the shadow of Rio landmark, Sugar Loaf mountain.
So after three weeks together, does Hodgson have a firm idea of his starting XI for the Italy game? “Pretty much, yeah,” he said. “In these three games certain players have performed better than others. Now we will have to start thinking about (the group) games.
“Whatever team I decide to use against Italy will be very, very competitive and I am sure we will show the discipline and organisation we showed (against Honduras).”
Ray Lewington, meanwhile, will begin England’s World Cup campaign on crutches after it emerged he had knee surgery just 24 hours before the Honduras game. The England assistant coach had an arthroscopy on his knee after awaking in severe discomfort on Friday morning. The former Crystal Palace defender has suffered from knee problems throughout his career.
Lewington is expected to be on crutches for two to three days and the Football Association is confident he will soon be able to resume his regular coaching duties with the squad.