Rustenburg: England have been urged to lay down a World Cup marker when they take on the United States in their opening Group C match on Saturday.
Steven Gerrard, who will captain the side in the absence of the injured Rio Ferdinand, believes Fabio Capello’s squad are ready to make a major impression on the tournament and the Liverpool midfielder underlined the importance of a positive start.
“The first game is always important,” he said. “It is important to stamp your mark on the tournament and let everyone know what you are about.”
Well-organised and resilient, the Americans represent England’s toughest opponents in a group that also includes Slovenia and Algeria.
“They are a good side but if we can get off to a good start and take maximum points I think everyone will take note,” Gerrard added.
“As a team the USA are very hard-working, very fit and physical. They will be trying to deny us time and space on the ball.
“They know we have quality on the ball. We are expecting to be pressed really quickly. I’m sure it will be a good physical battle but we are very confident we can win the match.
“I’m sure they are a lot more worried about us.”
An impressive run of nine wins from ten qualifiers, during which they scored 34 goals, had raised hopes that, with the benefit of Capello’s winning pedigree, England will be able to go beyond the quarter-final barrier at which they fell in the last two World Cups.
Recent weeks however have not been encouraging for the tens of thousands of England fans who have flown into South Africa.
The performances in friendly wins over Mexico and Japan have been some way short of convincing, the loss of Ferdinand is a significant one and Gareth Barry, a pivotal player under Capello, will not be risked on Saturday, having only just recovered from an ankle injury.
The United States’ quality was underlined by their run to the final of last year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa and AC Milan defender Oguchi Onyewu dismissed suggestions that Bob Bradley’s squad would happily settle for a draw.
“Our results last summer gained us a little more respect around the world and it gives you confidence you can compete with the best.
“The World Cup is a different monster of course and England are a good team but our expectation will still be to get a win.
“We will not be trying to frustrate them for as long as possible and trying to snatch a goal. We want to attack well as well as defend well and if we play the way we know we can we will have chances.”
Barry’s absence will force England to field a reshuffled midfield in which Gerrard will be asked to play in a deeper role than he has been accustomed to of late, reprising a central partnership with Frank Lampard that has previously always added up to less than the sum of the two individuals’ talents.
That will mean Joe Cole coming in on the left with a brief to get forward and link with Wayne Rooney.
Cole was one of the few England players to do himself justice in Germany four years ago, when England went out after a quarter-final penalty shoot-out defeat by Portugal having failed to live up to all the hype that surrounded a supposedly golden generation of players.
Four years on, England’s hopes are in the hands of essentially the same group, but -- older and possibly wiser -- Gerrard and his team-mates appear confident that, under Capello’s guidance, this time could be different.
“This squad has got the experience of being in tournaments before, it’s got a fit Wayne Rooney, a fit Steven Gerrard and everyone is coming to that right age,” said Joe Cole. “If we can have that bit of luck that you are going to need, then we can go all the way.”
That theme was echoed by Gerrard. “Everyone is desperate to do well, he said. “We want to deliver at this tournament. We feel as if we’ve under-achieved over the years with the players we have got.
“I look around the squad and that gives me confidence.
“But it is easy to talk the talk. The difficult thing is to go out there and walk the walk.”
Key To Match
Wayne Rooney (ENG) v Jay DeMerit (USA)
If England are to go deep into the knockout stages of this tournament, it is widely accepted that Rooney must be at his best and stay on the pitch. A red card in the 2006 quarter-final proved fatal to their chances of getting past Portugal.
Saturday’s match will provide the first indicator of whether Rooney is ready to deliver, in terms of form, fitness and discipline. DeMerit’s job will be to stop him and, despite their denials, the Watford centre-back and his fellow defenders will inevitably do their best to wind up England’s talisman.