There's a masochistic tendency in England -- perhaps you've noticed -- to approach things like World Cups by talking ourselves into believing that this time our brave lads will go all the way. Somehow, their repeated failure to do so since 1966 is one of the reasons for our confidence, suggesting a sloppy but enthusiastic appreciation for the law of averages. For all that was said about the "golden generation," these have been 44 years of overexpecting as much as underachieving.
Despite an unspoken collective decision not to get carried away again, the World Cup draw earlier this year prompted unbridled positivity. USA? Algeria? Slovenia? Easy! cried the tabloids. Easy! cried the fans, filling their cars with widescreen televisions and multipacks of beer. While it may be fair enough to suggest that world champions ought to dominate Group C, the assumption that England fits that bill is incautious at best.
It is perhaps a reflection of the faith that Fabio Capello has attracted since taking over from Steve McLaren in 2007. Even he expects a lot, following up the announcement of his provisional 30-man squad by telling Italian paper La Stampa that: "Not reaching the final would be failure." England's most tactically astute manager for decades, Capello has the squad and the rest of us rapt by his serenely effective leadership. That he has found a way to get something approaching the best out of many of the same players helps, of course. Ventures such as the Capello Index (a Web site designed to rate the England players' performance but delayed till after the World Cup following public outcry) have not, but rarely did his immediate predecessors enjoy such esteem, nonetheless.
Among the 30 names announced by Capello for his preliminary squad, however, there are one or two to spark dissent, not least Capello's attempts to draw out of retirement Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher (who said yes) and Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes (who didn't). In 2007, Carragher's decision to retire carried gravitas: repeatedly ignored by McLaren, he turned his back when he was still a viable -- and much called for -- option. His willingness to return now, when his agility and judgment look worse for the time passed, is less admirable.
The trouble is that chasing old faces doesn't match the progressive mood we've come to expect under Capello, who has shown a welcome readiness to give young or previously overlooked players a chance. This provisional squad includes a number of popular choices -- Michael Dawson, Adam Johnson, Darren Bent -- and several form players -- Tom Huddlestone, Scott Parker -- that few expected to see on the list. However, these are also the names most easily imagined missing come June 1 (when the final 23-man roster must be submitted to FIFA).
In fairness, the list is a reasonably measured attempt to mitigate injury concerns. It's likely we'll see England turn out in a flexible 4-2-3-1 formation, and Capello has said he would like his final squad to include two specialists in each position, plus three goalkeepers. For his willingness to bring in new men, he has always talked up the importance of experience; in the circumstances, he will struggle to keep his word on only selecting fully fit and in-form players.
In goal, Blackburn manager Sam Allardyce is apoplectic at Paul Robinson's exclusion, citing his 13 Premiership clean sheets and England experience as reasons to displace Joe Hart (too green) or David James (too relegated). There is no perfect solution in goal for England, but Robinson, who has also conceded three or more goals nine times this season, is not a convincing improvement on Capello's picks.
There's no doubting that Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson will be England's first choice fullbacks, with Leighton Baines rather than Stephen Warnock to deputize on the left. Cover on the right looks like being Carragher's role, though Gary Neville has perhaps better earned that opportunity, having finished strongly with Manchester United. Everton's Phil Jagielka hasn't quite hit his best since coming back from injury, but as cover, he has a few years on Neville and Carragher and, like the latter, can also cover in the middle.
Backup for the central defensive area would be a less pressing issue if Capello's main picks weren't hampered by injury concerns. Rio Ferdinand (back) has been out of sorts for about 18 months and hasn't played more than four consecutive games this season. Ledley King (knee) has managed four games in two weeks recently to improve his chances and John Terry's foot injury prior to the FA Cup final was blown out of proportion.
Still, of the five named, it's likely that one of the two fittest, Dawson and Matthew Upson, won't make the team. The West Ham man had a torrid time in England's last two matches, but is at least capped. Dawson's exceptional season may still be way short of preparing him for World Cup knockout competition. The decision between them will test Capello's taste for ability or experience; if Carragher travels, Dawson's improved chances are the silver lining.
There are 12 midfielders on the list, including five wingers. On the right, Aaron Lennon has added intelligent crosses to his lightning runs. Theo Walcott often lacks a killer last ball, but is as fast as Lennon and probably shoots better. Shaun Wright-Phillips hasn't been a regular starter for Manchester City and is about as effective as Ashley Young, who didn't made the cut. Capello likes him though, and he has created and scored goals coming off the bench for England.
That could be bad news for Adam Johnson, who seems to be the main contender to stay at home. I'd like to see Capello take a chance on him, with Joe Cole also on the squad. In that case, England's left side would offer a promising choice of the all-out direct pace of Johnson, or the more imaginative trickery that Cole can offer.
Able to play on either side, he and Lennon, who can also play in the left, make a tantalizing pair.
Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard,James Milner,Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, Tom Huddlestone and Scott Parker are vying for places in the middle. The first three are confident of their places, as will Barry be if he can prove his fitness by May 24.
Which leaves a fight between the last three for perhaps one spot. Carrick and Huddlestone are most comparable: neither is the world's greatest tackler, but both seem able to slow time when they have the ball, enabling them to identify the best recipient further up the pitch. But the manager promised not to pick players on reputation, and Carrick's selection has a hint of that about it after a muted season.
That's not to say, though, that Huddlestone makes a better pick for such a crucial run of games, no matter how well he has filled the role at Spurs. Parker could be the one to benefit. The West Ham captain shows more terrier-like commitment than any other and is an old-fashioned box-to-boxer. He has the most to prove in the next few weeks, but potentially the most to gain.
Up front, Capello has named five -- six, if you include Walcott, who's adaptable to the role -- and they pose more questions than his defensive picks. A niggling groin injury wouldn't and shouldn't stop Wayne Rooney travelling, but beyond that the off-form tussle with the walking-retired. Jermain Defoe scored two in his last 12 outings for Spurs, Peter Crouch three. Between them they've only scored two more goals than Darren Bent this season, but the Sunderland striker will be wary of getting too comfortable at England's Austrian training camp. Capello has shown faith in Defoe's instinct and Crouch has an uncanny knock of scoring for England no matter what his domestic form.
And then there's Emile Heskey. A lot has been made of his partnership with Rooney, but that argument takes scant account of how simple Heskey's role is in that -- the same role he plays at Villa, where he's barely able to get in a game. Bobby Zamora's heartbreak at having to tell Capello he would be unable to play for England (due to an Achilles injury) is shared by a nation entirely unconvinced of Heskey's charms. It is a shame that there is no place for his Villa teammate Gabriel Agbonlahor, who linked up well with Crouch against Belarus in October. He deserved at least an audience this month.
Before Alf Ramsey took over in the 1960s, the England squad was chosen by a selection committee, which picked the players that caught its eye and let the manager worry about putting a team together. Needless to say, it wasn't a winning system. Subsequently, Ramsey's decisions to bring in Nobby Stiles, a midfield ball-winner, and Jack Charlton, then 29 and without an England cap, were unpopular. In the run-up to the 1966 finals, pundit Jimmy Hill remarked "Nobody could win the World Cup with those players".
Comparisons between then and now are fraught with danger and incongruity, but any reservations must be tempered a little by that memory. Capello's 30 is conservative, but also a reminder that he lacks a depth of choice unless he's to follow Diego Maradona's scattergun approach for Argentina. There are startling exclusions from other squads (Javier Zanetti, Argentina; Neymar, Brazil; Antonio Cassano, Italy; Karim Benzema, France), but no such drama here, so far. I still hope, mind you, that the final-23 might spring a few surprises.
The full squad:
Goalkeepers: Robert Green (West Ham United), Joe Hart (Manchester City), David James (Portsmouth)
Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Michael Dawson (Tottenham Hotspur), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Ledley King (Tottenham Hotspur), John Terry (Chelsea), Matthew Upson (West Ham United), Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa)
Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham Hotspur), Adam Johnson (Manchester City), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur), James Milner (Aston Villa), Scott Parker (West Ham), Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City)
Forwards: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Peter Crouch (Tottenham Hotspur), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur), Emile Heskey (Aston Villa), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United).