It might appear premature to write off England's World Cup hopes, but I sense that the population who think they will qualify for the knockout stage is fast approaching the size of the contingent who think they can win the tournament. During the buildup, many noted the paucity of St George's flags draped from balconies or car windows as a sign of greater realism, but the iconic moment for me was Ed Miliband's decision to pose with a copy of the Sun, presumably calculating that the negative publicity on Merseyside would be less costly than appearing unpatriotic in the eyes of the rag's "loyal readers". Talk about tone-deaf.
The lack of expectation this time round is not a reaction to the years of over-optimistic hurt so much as a sober realisation that there is a limit to how long you can polish a turd. The fact that there is still a debate about how best to deploy Wayne Rooney, a 28 year old with more red cards (1) than goals (0) in World Cup finals, is an admission of the limited talent available. Daniel Sturridge has broken his duck in his first senior tournament game, but he remains a decent support striker rather than an outstanding spearhead. He had to leave both Citeh and Chelski to get games, and his flourishing at Liverpool obviously owes much to the company he keeps, i.e. the number of assists provided by Luis Suarez. His backup is Ricky Lambert, for whom the term "modest" would appear to have been tailored.
Roy Hodgson's decision to "give youth its head" has been applauded, but that's because we all know his brief is to keep morale positive in the hope that something may turn up. His avuncular, more homespun style is gratefully contrasted to the technocratic authoritarianism of Fabio Capello, but the significance of this is an acceptance that the FA were deluding themselves in believing that throwing money at the problem would make England contenders. There is something poignant in Gary Lewin's injury, as if the national setup had returned to the pratfallish style of Graham Taylor's regime, but without the anxiety and simmering resentment. For once, the oompah band playing The Great Escape would be appropriate for the remaining group games. You might as well enjoy it while you can.
Apart from limited striking options, England have possibly their weakest defence in years. Competent during the qualifiers, the back five already look out of their depth. Facing Italy's five-man midfield, they were repeatedly out-manoeuvred and unable to provide any attacking impetus. While Hodgson's decision to play Sterling in the hole forced the Italian defence to narrow, there was no one capable of taking advantage on the flanks (Sterling isn't as penetrative as Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain). Bringing on Barkley and Wilshere didn't help. The Everton next-big-thing simply walloped the ball against the defence at every available opportunity, creating more chances for Italy through rebounds than for England, while Wilshere's central dribbles ended in dispossession as he failed to find any intelligent movement ahead of him to release a pass to.
Though the England camp seems to be a welcoming snug of bonhomie these days, on the pitch the team remains a collection of ill-fitting parts. Pace and power creates enough space in the Premier League for oddballs like Rooney to prosper, but against world-class defences it usually comes up short. It's possible England will have more joy against Uruguay and Cost Rica, neither of whom boasts Italian levels of defensive security, however this assumes that Hart, Cahill & co don't contribute any howlers of their own. It's up for grabs now, as someone once said. One prediction I feel I can make with confidence is that Liverpool will struggle in the Champions' League next season, even if they do retain Suarez.
Overall it has been an excellent tournament so far, with goals aplenty and adventurous play. The crowds have been rather bland - i.e. well-off part-timers in replica shirts and too much face-paint - but that's hardly surprising given the high ticket prices and FIFA's determination to make the World Cup a celebration of bourgeois norms. Talking of which, technology has been very much to the fore, with the goal-line system proving itself in the France vs Bosnia-Herzegovina game last night. The sound of Martin Keown patiently correcting Jonathan Pearce's hyper-ventilating confusion was priceless.
However, the star of the show has unquestionably been the ten-yard-wall vanishing spray, not so much for being a simple idea whose effectiveness makes you wonder what FIFA's technical committee has been doing for the last half-century, but for the hilarious reaction of players trying to avoid getting it on their knitted sock boots. I'm half-expecting Cristiano Ronaldo to whip his top off and slather it over his nipples in the Germany-Portugal match later today. I wonder if it's inflammable?