• Captain to deliver rallying cry before Saturday’s match
• ‘The players are ready to give everything … no excuses now’
Steven Gerrard has urged his England team-mates to seize the opportunity to make the nation proud as they begin their World Cup campaign against Italy, with the captain stressing it is “time to walk the walk” after a month of exhaustive preparations.
The Liverpool veteran, who will earn his 112th cap at the Arena Amazônia against the Azzurri, considers the honour of leading his country in the tournament to be the pinnacle of his international career. This is likely to prove the 34-year-old’s last finals and, as one of a handful of senior figures among a relatively inexperienced squad, Gerrard will issue his own rallying cry to the England players just before kick-off.
“I will say something in the dressing room, towards the end when we are ready to go out, and it will be: ‘Let’s not have any regrets,’” he said. “All the preparation has been done. The squad that’s been picked is very bold and brave. Let’s believe we have all the energy and all the work in the legs and in the tank, so now let’s relax and let it happen. The key is just to not come off the pitch with any regrets and, basically, do what it takes to get that result.
“I will be proud leading this group of players out against Italy. I trust them and I believe in my team-mates, but I will be even prouder if we come home from this tournament with our heads held high knowing we have gone out on to the pitch and given everything we have got for the English public back home. And, looking at the lads and being in and around them, I get the impression they are ready to give everything they have got. It is here now. All the distances and the miles we have covered, the heat preparation, we have done all that. There are no excuses now. It is time to walk the walk.”
Roy Hodgson is expected to select Danny Welbeck on the left of his attacking trident, playing behind Daniel Sturridge, after the Manchester United forward recovered from a thigh strain suffered earlier this week to take part in training at the new Arena Amazônia. “It was a niggle which doesn’t stop him from playing, and he could start,” said the England manager of Welbeck, whose involvement is likely to mean Raheem Sterling starting on the bench. Southampton’s Adam Lallana is expected to operate on the right with Wayne Rooney as the central playmaker.
Sterling’s opportunity will come in this tournament, with Ross Barkley also hoping to make his mark at some stage. “No doubt if I was watching from afar with no responsibility, I’d be clamouring myself for the youngsters,” said Hodgson. “These are the players who don’t have the baggage to carry with them, they are exciting talents with fantastic potential, but you have to be careful that we don’t throw them into the lion’s den too early and we have to be aware that the World Cup is a little bit special.”
Temperatures at kick-off on Saturday evening tonight are expected to be touching 30C which while stiflingly hot, will technically rule out the possibility of formal “cooling breaks” after Fifa reiterated that official three-minute stoppages of play to take on liquids should be enforced by the referee only if the heat exceeds 32C.
The humidity will be oppressive, and there remain lingering concerns over the quality of the pitch at the stadium, which is hosting its first event. “When things don’t go right, the easy way out for footballers is to look for an excuse,” added Gerrard. “You look at other people and point fingers and blame others and say: ‘Well, that wasn’t right, this wasn’t right.’ But, for me, the FA have left the players with no excuses in every tournament I’ve been in. They try their best and maybe it is 99.9% right, but this time they have put everything in place. They have done everything they possibly can for the players to perform.
“When the whistle goes against Italy, you are on your own. You are with your team and your squad and you have to have belief in what we are going into the tournament with. I think we are in a good place. The squad is very talented, with a good blend of players who have vast experience at this level and have had great careers, and young exciting talents. But everyone knows you get judged after every individual game in these kind of tournaments.
“This is the perfect opener for us because, if we do perform as we know we can and we get that big result that we need, then it can go an awful long way to carry us through. The confidence and belief we would get if we do get the right result could be massive.”
Hodgson insisted he had no concerns over the state of the surface at the Arena Amazônia, where England trained for the first time on Friday evening. “I’ve just been on it and we think it’s fine,” he said. “It’s very flat. I don’t see any reason for any concern. We’ll be happy to play on that pitch. It’ll play well and will suit both teams. The grass is short, the pitch is flat, and we should be able to play good football on it.”