Injuries and off-field distractions to cost England dear

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After a 3-0 win against Belarus in October completed World Cup qualification, England couldn’t wait for the tournament proper to start.

The way Fabio Capello instilled England with a discipline and group unity brought genuine hope that this time things would be different come the Finals.

England had qualified in a dominant fashion, scoring 34 goals and conceding six in a campaign that saw two crushing defeats of Croatia, and a purging of the country’s Euro 2008 demons.

But since then, injuries to key players and a series of newspaper revelations have shorn England of a handful of squad certainties and brought disruption to a period Capello would have demanded be smooth.

And the odds are showing this. For while England are third favourites at 11/2 to lift the trophy, they are also a slim 9/4 to go out in the second round, a clear reflection of their previous efforts in major tournaments.

Capello’s team are likely to face either Serbia or Germany at that stage of the competition and either looks more than capable of asking some serious questions of a potentially depleted England side.

Nearly all the members of a first choice XI have suffered either injury or a dip in form since the Belarus game, and after challenging matches in the group stage the number of choices Capello has open to him may be shortened.

There is clearly huge pressure on Wayne Rooney to recover fully from his ankle knocks and deliver the phenomenal goalscoring he managed for his club this season. Questions over right-back and goalkeeper positions continue and what may prove key is how much time Capello gives to exciting talents like Milner, Walcott and Lennon, over more experienced, but perhaps fading, heads like Gerrard and Heskey.

You get the feeling that England will need to abandon the caution shown in crunch meetings at previous tournaments and conjure up the ruthless attacking play that cut opponents to shreds during qualification. But limp friendly displays against top-class countries such as Spain, Holland and Brazil have ensured that the nagging doubts about England’s real quality remain.

Are we overly pessimistic? If you think England can repeat ’66 then back them at 11/2 to win the tournament.

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