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|EURO 2012 Preview: England|
The Three Lions enter the European Championships with next to no expectation on them performing. After coming through an easy qualification group with five wins and three draws, the English are faced with geographic rivals France, Sweden and hosts Ukraine. Will the lack of public expectation allow England to be a dark horse at the tournament?
After naming their provisional squad, England has been hit hard by injuries. Three potential starters - Gary Cahill, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry - have all been forced to withdraw with injury.With talisman Wayne Rooney suspended until the third group stage game, this leaves an already thin looking squad down to it's bare bones.
This doesn't bode well for the English who have perennially struggled at major tournaments since their greatest and only triumph - the 1966 World Cup. Since finishing third in Euro 1968, the Poms performance in the tournament reads dismally. A semi final appearance in 1996 and a quarter final in 2004 is the only relative success achieved. England also failed to qualify for the last Euro edition in 2008, held in Switzerland and Austria.
In goal, England has had a significant problem over the past few years. Players such as David James, Paul Robinson and Ben Foster have all failed as being the number one. Enter Joe Hart. The Premier League winning Manchester City custodian is fast emerging as one of the best young keepers in the world.
He will start between the sticks against France on June 4 and will be supported by West Ham's Robert Green and the uncapped Birmingham youngster Jack Butland. For England to have any chance to progress through the tournament, Hart is going to have to be in form, as pre-tournament matches have shown England is susceptible to opposition with quality attacking players.
England manager Roy Hodgson is probably wishing he selected English veteran Rio Ferdinand after Gary Cahill's broken jaw in the warm-up match versus Belgium ruled him out of the tournament. With Cahill's injury, it's expected that Manchester City's Joleon Lescott will be drafted into the starting eleven alongside John Terry.
The Chelsea captain also sustained a hamstring tear against Belgium but is expected to be passed fit to start England's first game. At left-back, the dependable Ashley Cole can be expected to continue his good form after a brilliant Champions League final for Chelsea. The starting right-back position is not as clear cut. Liverpool's Glen Johnson is expected to start but question marks remain over his ability to be a quality defender.
Manchester United's Phil Jones will come in if Johnson struggles on the big stage. Cahill's injury replacement Martin Kelly and Everton duo Leighton Baines and Phil Jagielka remain in reserve if any injury problems occur. It will be an unsettled defence that will need to gel quickly if England have any hope of progressing.
The make-up of England's starting midfield remains a mystery. With injuries to Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry ruling them out of the tournament, it is unclear who Hodgson will opt for. It's a given that Tottenham enforcer Scott Parker will protect the back four and it's expected that Steven Gerrard will line up alongside him in a withdrawn role. However, with England's defensive frailties, will Hodgson opt for a five man midfield? If he does, peripheral Manchester City midfielder James Milner may start in central midfield or from left field, 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may figure behind the starting striker. Liverpool youngster Jordan Henderson may also feature if the English midfield struggles to function.
On the flanks, Ashley Young should continue the role he played on the left for Manchester United and Arsenal's Theo Walcott is most likely to start on the right. Misfiring Liverpool winger Stewart Downing will deputise Young on the left and a variety of players such as Milner, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Henderson are capable of supporting Walcott on the right if he lacks form.
With Rooney's suspension, the English striking stocks are looking quite thin. The two options expected to figure before Rooney's return, Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck, have only scored one goal each at international level. Whilst Welbeck got his debut goal in the friendly against Belgium only a few days ago, Carroll's bustling robust style is expected to get the nod up forward.
This is a chance to shine for the burly Liverpool striker, who had some decent form toward the end of the Premier League season. It will be interesting to see if Rooney is deployed as lone striker when he returns or whether he will support Carroll or Welbeck.
An English side already devoid of expectation has been further set back by the cruel injuries to Barry, Cahill and Lampard. Will this lift a weight off the English shoulders? Will Hodgson be able to mould the side in his defensive mindset and grind out results?
As the pre-tournament friendlies have shown, England is capable of grinding out results. If Hodgson can get the team defensively organised and working together, then there is no reason why the Poms can't sneak through to the knockout stages. As Greece showed in 2004, defensive football can win tournaments and the English will need a similar vein of form and luck to lift their first European Championship.
PLAYER TO WATCH - ANDREW CARROLL
The time is now for Andy Carroll. The Geordie-born striker has endured a nightmare start to his Liverpool career after his big money from Newcastle at the end of last season.
Having been written off by all and sundry, Carroll started to put together some good performances toward the end of Liverpool's domestic season. This glimpse of quality ensured his place on the plane to Ukraine and with Rooney's early absence, Carroll will be England's most important player.
If Carroll can replicate the form that saw Liverpool pay £35million for his services, then England could have a very successful tournament. He needs to work hard up front by running the channels, holding the ball up and closing down defenders. When he gets that chance in front of goal, he needs to take it with aplomb.
This tournament could be the make or break of Carroll's career and we will all watch with anticipation as the "flowing ponytail" lopes around the field.
KIERAN'S PREDICTION: QUARTER FINAL - The Three Lions will grit their teeth and fight their way out of their group, but will bow out against quality opposition in the quarters.