LONDON (AP) — Never before has England traveled to a World Cup better prepared — for the post-tournament inquest.
The search for answers to England's long-standing struggles began while the team coached by Roy Hodgson was still qualifying for its fifth straight World Cup. Too many foreign players in the Premier League? England's lack of a winter break?
The Football Association commission's verdict won't be delivered until next season, but England's World Cup excuses are in earlier than ever before. "We are limited because some of the players we'd like to choose, and have chosen in the qualifying games, aren't always regulars in their team's starting line-up," Hodgson said.
Just advancing from a group containing Italy and Uruguay would be an achievement. Even FA chairman Greg Dyke responded to the draw in December with a throat-slitting action that was caught on camera. Four-time world champion Italy, which beat England in the 2012 European Championship quarterfinals, is first up in humid Manaus, followed by 2010 semifinalist Uruguay in a Sao Paulo stadium that is as much a work in progress as the England team itself. By the time England travels to Belo Horizonte to face Costa Rica, the engines might already be warming up on the runway for the return home.
England did go through qualifying unbeaten, but there was scarce encouragement from uninspiring performances with little attacking penetration. It hasn't been much better in World Cup warm-ups, with losses to Germany and Chile followed by an arduous 1-0 win over Denmark.
Hodgson desperately needs Wayne Rooney, one of football's top earners at Manchester United, to justify his star billing. The match-turning moments of brilliance in the penalty area Rooney can conjure for United have been absent too often on international duty, especially when it comes to World Cups. Rooney failed to score at the last two tournaments in Germany and South Africa.
"Maybe once or twice in the past he hasn't exploded as maybe he has on our national stage, where we all accept him as being an outstanding player," Hodgson said. "This is your chance," Hodgson added in a direct appeal to Rooney. "This is the world stage, the perfect opportunity for him to prove to people in the world what we already know, that he is a very, very gifted footballer."
While Rooney could arrive in Brazil a frustrated figure following a surprisingly miserable season with United, Liverpool is thriving — and England could reap the rewards. Captain Steven Gerrard, right back Glen Johnson, winger Raheem Sterling and striker Daniel Sturridge are among the Premier League-title chasing Liverpool contingent that could provide the core of Hodgson's World Cup team.
Success breeds confidence, and Hodgson has also profited from Southampton's impressive season utilizing homegrown talent. Forward Rickie Lambert, midfielder Adam Lallana and defender Luke Shaw have all made their international debuts since August.
And it is Lallana, with his intelligent and energetic moves, presenting a strong case to start in Brazil. "He's been an under-rated player for many years," Hodgson said of the attacking midfielder who has risen with Southampton from the third division to the Premier League. "It's an unfortunate truth if you want to get recognized at the top level you have to be playing at the top level."
But the best English players won't necessarily be at the World Cup. Hodgson won't beg former captain John Terry to end a self-imposed international exile instigated by a domestic ban for racist abuse. And Hodgson will also not risk taking those who aren't fully fit, with Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere currently in a race against time to recover from a broken left foot.
"It's not going to be like sometimes it's been in the past that loyalty can be rewarded," Hodgson said. "You've got to be on the plane because I believe you have a role to play."
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris