Having scraped draws against Ukraine and Montenegro, they sat at the top of their group, albeit shakily, with the former Soviet state only one point behind.
Plain sailing it wasn’t. And any chance the England manager Roy Hodgson might have had to enjoy the success of qualifying for the world’s most important sporting event came to a sudden end when the draws for the group stages took place earlier this month.
For England were placed in the ‘group of death’, alongside powerhouses Italy and the rampant firecrackers Uruguay. Even the seemingly benign Costa Rica with several Premier League players could prove to be a match for the Three Lions, though defeat against the relative minnows could prove particularly humiliating.
If that wasn’t hard enough, northern lads like Rooney – more used to the grim drizzle of Manchester – must quickly acclimatise to the searing tropical heat of Brazil, and the Amazon rainforest, where the first game against Italy is to be played on June 14 at the Manaus stadium.
These are, of course, conditions that the south Americans and Mediterraneans will be more familiar with.
It must seem like the footballing gods had gone out of their way to make England’s competition as difficult as possible.
But could England actually survive their group? Could a glimmer of hope flicker through those clammy rainforest trees to spur on weary-looking Gerrard and his boys?
Surely if they can survive the onslaught from Suarez and Balotelli then anything is possible, and those travelling to see England in the world cup could finally have something to celebrate.
The south Americans’ main threat comes from Luis Suarez. He’s fast, aggressive, skillful and clever – qualities the England players will know all to well having seen him lift Liverpool to lofty heights in the Premier League already this season. One of England’s big hopes, Suarez’s striking partner Daniel Sturridge, looks a mere shadow in comparison without the Latin star beside him.
England must also watch out for Edinson Cavani, who helped Paris St-Germain to a French title last season.
The Uruguay side will be keen to outshine Brazil on their home continent, and claiming England’s scalp would do just that.
Italy must have been celebrating already when they learned that they would be playing England. The Azzuri knocked out Hodgson’s men in the Euro 2012 championship with ease, and since then Italy have become an even stronger side. In fact, they were unbeaten in the qualifying stages. What’s more, their hit man Mario Ballotelli is on form, having found some much-needed discipline in the Serie A. Ballotelli will know England’s stars well, and will be Italy’s main threat. Though with a squad full of top players, they are by no means a one-man team. Playing Italy will be like breaking down a fortress.
England’s players will have to be careful to conserve their energy in the humid conditions, where temperatures can reach 30c during the day. Holding the ball in the midfield, and frustrating the opposition is the best way to arouse the fiery temperaments of both Suarez and Balotelli, and cause them to lose concentration.
Unfortunately keeping possession is England’s weakest point. If they can, then they have every chance of winning their group, and causing a big surprise.
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