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Monday, April 26, 2010
Will this finally be the year for England?

By Ravi Ubha
Special to ESPN.com

Not many countries match England when it comes to hype surrounding a World Cup. Several have had more success.

Could this year be different, the year England finally ends a 44-year drought?

Maybe. England waltzed in qualifying, crushing nemesis Croatia in the process; Wayne Rooney has turned into one of the top three players in the world; and the manager knows what he's doing.

English bookies, usually on the mark, list the Three Lions as third favorite in South Africa, behind Spain and Brazil, and ahead of Argentina, Italy, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Here are three reasons why England has a chance, and three reasons why the hysteria exceeds reality.

The case for England

Wayne Rooney, Wayne Rooney and Wayne Rooney: When Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United, it meant Rooney would see more of the ball. He's taken advantage, scoring 34 goals in all competitions. The Red Devils have midfield support with the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Antonio Valencia and Nani, but without Rooney, Fergie's team is out of the title race, especially since moody Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov has flopped.

No wonder Rooney, 24, is now mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Ronaldo. England feared the worst as Rooney went down clutching his right ankle in a Champions League game at Bayern Munich last month, but he managed to avoid a lengthy absence. Rooney's strike rate with England is impressive, 25 goals in 58 games since making his debut in 2003.

As the expression goes, wrap him up in cotton wool. "We are reliant on Wayne Rooney," Geoff Hurst, hat-trick hero of the 1966 final at Wembley, told ESPNsoccernet last week. "He's had a magnificent season, scoring more goals than anyone would have expected him to score, and we just need to keep him clear of injury."

Don Fabio: Fabio Capello is a proper manager, having guided Real Madrid, A.C. Milan, Roma and Juventus to league titles (Juventus' title was later stripped). He doesn't pick players on reputation, like one of his predecessors, nomadic Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson, and the players don't rule the roost like they did under Eriksson and Steve McClaren, now working wonders in the Netherlands.

Discipline is key for the no-nonsense Italian. The squad eats together, cell phones are banned during meals, a dress code is enforced, no nicknames are used and don't even think about being late -- for anything. WAGS will largely be off-limits in South Africa.

"The manager is single-minded and has been a winner all through his career," England captain Rio Ferdinand told reporters last week. "He has brought that winning mentality to the squad, and it's what we needed."

Capello has also managed to tame the wild side of Rooney, without limiting his effectiveness.

The draw: The Three Lions couldn't have asked for a better draw in the group stage, lining up alongside the U.S., Slovenia and Algeria. For all the excitement surrounding England's clash with the U.S. on June 12, anything but an England win comes as a hefty surprise. England shouldn't drop points against Slovenia and Algeria, either.

In the second round, Capello and crew probably face Serbia or Ghana, with the latter's prospects not looking so good given the possible absence of Chelsea's Michael Essien, one of the best two-way midfielders around.

Come the quarterfinals, if things go as expected, it's France. Les Bleus have had much better teams in the past and aren't exactly high on confidence. If England gets to the semis (the last time that happened was in 1990), Brazil looms. Anything can happen.

The case against England

The goalkeeper: Gordon Banks or Peter Shilton, where are you? The starting goalkeeper's spot was up for grabs when Capello took over, and two years later, there's still no definitive No. 1. Leading the pack is David James, whose howlers have diminished as he's gotten older. James is arguably still the best shot stopper in the Premier League, but at any time, "Calamity James" isn't far away. He hasn't played regularly with Portsmouth this season, starting 12 league games since the middle of December. The 39-year-old has experience on his side, however, making 49 appearances for England.

Robert Green is next in line. Green wobbled at times last season but hasn't done much wrong this campaign, playing behind a wretched defense at West Ham. Green made six straight starts for England during one stretch last year, only unseated due to a red card. He also started in England's last game against Egypt in March.

Other contenders include Wigan's Chris Kirkland (a perennial one), and Birmingham's Joe Hart, currently outshining James, Green and Kirkland. The problem for Hart is he's made only one England appearance -- two years ago. It's unlikely Capello would start with the 23-year-old in South Africa. Ben Foster can't get a game at Manchester United -- or even get into the squad -- so he's fading.

Form and injuries: Rooney excluded, it hasn't been a great season for many of England's expected starting 11. John Terry, stripped of the captaincy in the wake of the Wayne Bridge saga, has stumbled in the second half. Never the most graceful central defender, he was sent off against Tottenham a week ago following a rash tackle. Days earlier versus Bolton, he escaped giving away a penalty for a blatant handball. Terry appeared uncertain, not knowing who was with him in the box.

Steven Gerrard is on pace to score his fewest league goals since 2006-2007 at Liverpool, while Emile Heskey, often Rooney's strike partner, last started for Aston Villa on March 24.

Flourishing for Tottenham and England, Aaron Lennon got hurt at precisely the wrong time. A groin injury kept the speedy right winger on the sidelines for four months -- he returned last weekend -- and Rio Ferdinand has been dealing with a groin problem of his own. Chelsea's Ashley Cole, one of the top left backs in the world, recently returned after a 2½-month stint on the sidelines due to a broken ankle.

Rooney, who courageously played with the ankle injury, now appears likely to miss the rest of the league season with a groin concern. Not the way he wants to enter the World Cup.

History: 1966 was a long time ago, and England had home-field advantage.

For a country that claims to have invented soccer, has the best league in the world and some of the most passionate fans, World Cups have indeed been highly disappointing. A tradition of failure, you could say.

England last reached the semifinals in 1990, didn't qualify in 1994 and the so-called golden generation failed to deliver under Eriksson in 2006. Perennially exiting on penalties is bad luck, but it also points to a little extra quality that's missing.

Former Liverpool legend John Barnes may have hit the nail on the head when he told ESPN.com in August (guessing right on the draw), "If England plays Brazil in the semifinals and both play to their maximum, Brazil will win. It's that simple."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.