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Football World Cup 2014: Heat on England as 'Group of Death' awaits

Saturday, 7 December 2013 - 8:04am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Hodgson's side face Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Fears of coach realised with fixture in Amazon.

Roy Hodgson was hardly singing in the rainforest at the news that England have been sent to Manaus, the capital of the jungle. With Fifa dismissing as "nonsense" that England's opening Group D game with Italy will be moved away from Manaus on June 14, Hodgson has the trip he did not want, up the Amazon, against experienced opponents who knocked England out of their last tournament, Euro 2012.

With Luis Suarez and Uruguay up next in Sao Paulo on June 19, -England could go into their final game, against Costa Rica on June 24, struggling for oxygen and facing the very real prospect of failing to reach the second stage of a World Cup for the first time since 1958. The location of their final Group D game, Belo -Horizonte, brings back alarming memories of losing to the United States in 1950.

Sir Geoff Hurst, who drew England's ball and sent them to Manaus and into the group of Suarez, Mario Balotelli and Bryan Ruiz, has accidentally complicated England's World Cup. A more recent wearer of the England No10 shirt, Wayne Rooney, will hardly fear anyone, a self-belief Hodgson could do with throughout the squad. Arsenal's No10, Jack Wilshere, immediately posted a defiant tweet: "Tough group...but so what? If we want to win it we will have to play the best teams anyway!!'' Wilshere's determination is to be applauded but the look on Hodgson's face, and Greg Dyke's slow finger across the throat, signalled English concerns. The feeling persists that England will need to be at their fittest, sharpest and freshest to survive Group D. The draw smiled on Brazil and they look even stronger favourites to lift the trophy at Maracana. Hodgson was still happy with his "tenner" on England to win the World Cup.

"Why not?'' he said after the draw. "It's a tough group of course but we are not the only team that's in a tough group. I can't deny that it's not the group we would have plucked out for ourselves.'' Hodgson was informed that all the coaches had called it a 'Group of Death'. "I'm glad they [other managers] do all the nominating of names for the type of group it is. I'll just call it group D."

"Suarez and Balotelli are an -enormous threat. But we've also got a big threat. I'd like to think if Daniel [Sturridge] can keep doing what he's doing and Wayne can continue the form he's in then we'll have a threat as well. We don't want to get too hung up on opponents. "People are not going to be rubbing their hands with joy because they've got to play England. Suarez is a top-class player and I came up against Edinson Cavani with Liverpool [against Napoli] and I rate him highly too, just as I rate Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo and lots of other players.

"But I'd like to think that we've got one or two players in our team as well. I was asked by Italian TV about how we would block Balotelli and Pirlo but maybe they'll have to start thinking about how they'll block Gerrard and Rooney. Let's wait and see anyway, because a lot can happen between now and then." Indeed. There have already been whispers amongst broadcasters that the game, scheduled for a 9pm local kick-off (in the small hours in Europe) could be switched away from Manaus, a rumour that a Fifa spokesman dismissed as "nonsense". - England would hardly be pleased at the thought of it being brought forward into the more furnace-like heat of the early evening.

"At the moment the kick-off time is at 9pm and that's what I'm working on,'' said Hodgson. It would be highly contentious if Fifa relocated the game. -Bowing to TV demands, and making it the 4pm kick-off, would upset Hodgson and Cesare Prandelli. "At 9pm the weather will be 21-22C inside the stadium,'' said Leonardo Novellino of the Manaus mayor's office. "It will be 30C outside.'' Earlier in the week, Hodgson had hardly endeared himself to Amazonians with his comments that he was more -worried about travelling to tropical Manaus than facing Lionel Messi, but peace broke out last night (Friday).

"We will welcome England fans to Manaus with warmth, good food and parties," added Novellino. Hodgson will have a 3,500-mile round trip from their Rio base. "My fear wasn't one long trip, which most teams are going to have to do,'' said Hodgson. "My fear was having to move the base camp if all our games had been in the north. We've been lucky in that respect. We can stay in Rio because our other games are in Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte.''

Both of these are within 300 miles of Rio. But the challenge of Group D is considerable. The FA released details of statistics compiled on their opponents. Italy's threat comes from all over but Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka will need particularly to beware the aerial route as 42 per cent of Italy's goals in qualifying were scored with headers. England have only one competitive victory over Italy in seven attempts, and the memory of Pirlo running the show in Kiev, and then his audacious penalty in the shoot-out, remain strong. Balotelli can cause havoc in any defence if in the mood.

"Balotelli is top drawer and so are the central midfielders he has behind him, Pirlo and [Riccardo] Montolivo as well.'' England have never beaten Uruguay in competitive games, losing once in 1954 and drawing at Wembley in 1966. Suarez will love the opportunity to put one over on the FA, which has twice banned him. The banter with the Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard at Melwood should be lively too. When England face the 2010 semi-finalists, they must not only beware the menace of Suarez and Cavani from open play. Uruguay scored a third of their qualifying goals from set-pieces. As England have proved repeatedly, they can get caught out at set-pieces. England have never before played Costa Rica. Bryan Ruiz and company scored a third of their goals in qualifying from headers.

"Costa Rica will be ignored somewhat because people don't know them so well, but Jurgen Klinsmann [the United States coach] has been raving about them and -saying how good they are.'' Costa Rica ended United States' 12-game winning streak in September. What the draw has highlighted is that England cannot travel with any player who is not at peak fitness. This will be a demanding section in a truly demanding tournament. It could also be a tournament for young legs. Italy are to ask for the 30-man squad-naming deadline of May 12 to be put back a week to assess fitness of -players.

"We'll back any ideas that put the players' health and their capacity to do the job at the forefront of things,'' said Hodgson. "It's been mentioned about drinks breaks. I know the Italians intend to bring this up and they'll have our backing." The Italians are prepared. They played in the Confederations Cup last summer and compiled data on conditions, travel issues, and the physical stresses on the players. England had Hodgson's assistant, Ray Lewington, at the Confederations Cup while the team administrator, Michelle Farrar, heads to Manaus on Saturday. With Hodgson looking on in the huge tent for the draw at Costa do Sauipe, England had been quickly reminded of the perils of the World Cup with the giant screen showing footage of Diego Maradona dribbling through England's defence in 1986 and Ronaldinho scoring against David Seaman in 2002.

As ever with a Fifa draw, it was an event of contrasts: there was the modesty of Vicente del Bosque, the Spanish coach voicing his respect for all participants, set against the towering ego of Sepp Blatter. Fifa's president even interrupted the "minute's silence" for Nelson Mandela after 10 seconds to demand everyone in the tent applaud. Hodgson clapped and then returned to his contemplations.

With Manaus now on the menu, Hodgson's plans for a hot-weather training camp in Miami en route to Brazil makes even more sense. Hodgson can scramble his scouts to check on the friendlies of Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy, can spend hours analysing their players and systems, and scrutinising the coaches who could end his England career.

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