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When England's golden generation failed to deliver in Germany four years ago and the Three Lions failed to qualify for Euro 2008, things looked bleak. But, led by manager Fabio Capello, England prospered in World Cup qualifying, putting the Croatian nightmare at Wembley behind it by thumping Croatia 4-1 away. England won nine of 10 games, drawing the other.
England enters the World Cup among the second batch of favorites, behind Spain and Brazil. Much of the penalty misery will be forgotten if England claims its first title, and second overall, since way back in 1966.
Call Capello a no-nonsense disciplinarian. He's tactically astute, no surprise given his Italian background. Capello, who enjoyed success at Real Madrid, A.C. Milan, Juventus and Roma, became England's second foreign manager, after the heavily criticized Swede, Sven Goran Eriksson.
4-4-2 or 4-5-1. England possesses a wealth of talented players, led on the attacking front by Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. That's not to say it's all about going forward. Far from it. Capello likes a good balance, and team defense is important. The flexibility is there. England can chase goals or play for a 0-0 draw.
1. Wayne Rooney. Rooney had a magnificent season with Manchester United, slightly softening the blow of Cristiano Ronaldo's departure. The striker didn't look out of place when mentioned in the same company as Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. However, an ankle injury, followed by a dodgy groin, means he might not be in top shape in South Africa.
2. David James. James, still one of the best shot stoppers in the world, has lessened the calamitous errors as he's gotten older. That said, you're never quite at ease when the 39-year-old is between the sticks. If he gets the nod ahead of Robert Green, be prepared for anything.
3. Emile Heskey. Capello vowed to pick only players who were in form, but he countered that by including the burly striker. The only reason Heskey made the squad was because he links up so well with Rooney -- at this stage, he's far from a goal-scoring threat. Heskey holds the ball up well and works tirelessly for the cause. Nonetheless, Darren Bent must be wondering how Heskey edged him.
Frank Lampard. The Chelsea midfielder picked it up down the stretch, playing a big part as the Blues ended Manchester United's Premier League dominance.
Steven Gerrard. As good as he is, Gerrard wasn't his usual self with Liverpool. His goal output was down, and at times he looked disinterested.
1. Will injuries play a role? Maybe. Rooney, undone by a foot injury on the eve of the 2006 World Cup, needs to be healthy. If not, England has little chance. Other regulars Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Gareth Barry didn't end the domestic season fit.
2. Can England avoid penalties? Everyone in England hopes so. England exited on penalties in 1990, 1998 and 2006 (the only team to be 0-3 in World Cup shootouts), not to mention at the European Championship in 1996 and 2004.
3. Who will be the scapegoat? Someone is sure to be vilified if the team disappoints yet again. It was David Beckham in 1998, David Seaman four years later thanks to his howler against Brazil, and Rooney in 2006 for his sending off against Portugal in the quarterfinals.
G David James, Portsmouth
D Ashley Cole, Chelsea
D John Terry, Chelsea
D Rio Ferdinand, Manchester United
D Glen Johnson, Liverpool
M Michael Carrick, Manchester United
M Steven Gerrard, Liverpool
M Frank Lampard, Chelsea
M Aaron Lennon, Tottenham
F Wayne Rooney, Manchester United
F Peter Crouch, Tottenham