This Is A Time For Realistic Optimism

Philip Cornwall saw enough to be hopeful at Wembley, but equally enough to concern. After all, who doesn't need a bit of luck when it comes to the World Cup...?

Last Updated: 06/03/14 at 10:59 Post Comment

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There was room for some positive headlines after England's win against Denmark: the Sun led with "Lalland of Hope 'N Glory" in honour of Southampton's inspired substitute, before a less enthusiastic tone inside. "Sturridge makes it plane sailing" announced the Times, and Daniel's clubmate Raheem was rewarded with "Sterling threat no bluff" on the Guardian website (though it was mystifying that they added "Scots told", given that the Liverpool teenager cannot face Gordon Strachan's men competitively until Euro 2016. It's the kind of rub-your-face-in-it sporting jingoism that Alex Salmond must love).

But there was plenty of scepticism about a night when it seemed the loudest applause would be for Tom Finney, Richard Moller-Neilsen and Bert Williams until Adam Lallana set up Sturridge for his winner, and when it comes to England's attacking qualities the criticism did seem overblown. "Lame Lions late to make Dan-mark", in Metro, is considerably more rotten than the match it purports to describe.

Yes, it was a night when you would have struggled to pick out Wayne Rooney as a £300,000-a-week man, but without an excellent performance from Kasper Schmeichel in the visitors' goal Roy Hodgson's side would surely have run out comfortable winners. England produced 10 shots on target to Denmark's two, with the eight off target including Sterling's effort against a post when the goal was at his mercy but he was being impeded from behind.

An overwhelming superiority in chances created was achieved with 56-57% possession, depending on your sources. True, England were pedestrian at times but there were regular moments when the tempo was increased, leading to the openings. Maybe there was too much slow, slow, slow but the quick, quick was summoned up often enough by what, at this stage, is something of a scratch side. The anticipation, the rhythm, will have to improve once the final 23 are together but that is what the Portugal training camp and the final three friendlies are for. Patience can easily be mistaken for stodginess when the final product is lacking.

What worried me - what always worries me - were the defensive lapses, especially the central ones. Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling showed no kind of mutual understanding and Joe Hart had to make some crucial interventions after being left exposed.

It's a thread running back several years now and best exemplified by Rob Green's blunder against the USA at the last World Cup: England players are more prone to fatal errors than should be the case. That Rustenburg catastrophe undermined the entire campaign in South Africa.

On the day of the game, London's Evening Standard gave up a page to analyse the prospects of the 10 most favoured teams at the finals, the kicker being that England are not among them. And Morten Olsen made a comment at the press conference, boiled down to "Good luck in Brazil - you'll need it" by the Mail, and was interrogated on ITV about it. Denmark's veteran coach is right, of course - and as Oliver Kay puts it in the Times, "what looks, on paper, like a brutal put-down" was delivered with a benign expression.

England have an especially difficult draw: Uruguay are seeded, and Italy would have been but for one setback. But had the FA not arranged so many rankings-sapping friendlies then England would have been in the leading eight, too, as Uruguay and Italy know. You get the impression that some in Fleet Street, on TV and ringing 5 Live don't realise this.

Olsen is spot-on, we will need some luck: football is usually a low-scoring game and one decision, one deflection can be telling. We will either need Rooney to look like the player his agent says he is or for Hodgson to grant Sturridge top billing. But it will also help if those who thought booing Tom Cleverley's name, who think it's news that luck plays a role and England will need some, are left as isolated as possible in the next five months. This is a time for realistic optimism, because otherwise what exactly is the point?

Philip Cornwall

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