LONDON (Reuters) - England return to the European Championship after an eight-year absence with new manager Roy Hodgson hoping to improve on what is a woeful record in the finals for one of Europe’s traditional stronger soccer nations.
England are the only European country to have won the World Cup but never be crowned European champions and there are very few indicators suggesting that England’s disappointing European record will improve this summer.
Whether Hodgson, 64, named on May 1 as England’s new permanent manager following the departure of Fabio Capello in February, can bring success remains one of the many unanswered questions facing the Three Lions next month.
In eight finals appearances since 1968 they have only reached the semi-finals twice: in 1968, when only four teams took part in Italy and in 1996 when they hosted the tournament.
Now, with only weeks to go before their Group D campaign kicks off against France in Donetsk, Ukraine, on June 11, the responsibility for picking the squad and the team has passed from caretaker Stuart Pearce, to Hodgson, who is expected to name his squad next week.
The immediate target for Hodgson is to ensure there is no repeat of England’s dismal performances at the 2010 World Cup finals where they went out to Germany in the last 16 after suffering their worst ever World Cup defeat - a 4-1 thrashing.
Capello was widely criticised for those performances and many felt he should have gone immediately afterwards.
However, he stayed on and England regained their self respect as they cruised unbeaten through the Euro 2012 qualifiers for these finals, winning five and drawing three of their eight games.
The only real blemish in the campaign came 17 minutes from the end of the last one against Montenegro in Podgorica on October 7 when, with their place all but secured, striker Wayne Rooney was sent off for a senseless kick at defender Miodrag Dzudovic.
That ultimately resulted in Rooney, a player with undoubted match-winning pedigree, being banned for the first two matches of the finals against France and then Sweden four days later.
The Manchester United striker, who has scored more than 30 goals for club and country so far this season, will be eligible to join the fray on June 19 when England play hosts Ukraine in Donetsk, which could well be their last game in the competition.
There is no doubt that England’s players, used to playing at the highest level week in week out in the Premier League with some of the world’s biggest names, have the capacity to do well.
Hodgson at least, who has spent the last 15 months at West Bromwich Albion, does have previous international experience having coached the Switzerland, Finland and United Arab Emirates national sides in the past.
Tournament football at this level is not new to him either, having led Switzerland to the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States - their first appearance for 28 years.
But whether the player’s potential, and Hodgson’s knowledge, combine to produce success is unknown, but he does have one immediate dilemma to solve and that is over the relationship between John Terry and Rio Ferdinand and the captaincy issue.
Capello resigned after challenging the FA’s decision to strip Terry of the captaincy because of his upcoming court case in which he will plead not guilty to racially abusing Ferdinand’s younger brother Anton of Queens Park Rangers when Chelsea played QPR last October.
Will Ferdinand, who has been in good form for United and Terry, who has been outstanding for Chelsea, be able to put the off-field distraction to one side and play harmoniously together in the centre of England’s defence?
He will also have to blend a midfield which often looks one-paced and one-dimensional.
His striker options are also limited because of Rooney’s two-match ban, a serious injury to Darren Bent that makes it unlikely he will be fit in time and the inexperience of youngsters like Danny Welbeck of Manchester United and Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge, who started the season well before fading.
Liverpool’s expensive striker Andy Carroll has finally started scoring again while Jermain Defoe of Tottenham Hotspur is a proven scorer with 15 England goals, but has spent most of the season as substitute for his club.
Hodgson now faces the hardest job of his long managerial career and leading England to the quarter-finals at least - where they usually go out on penalties - might be a step too far after just a few weeks in the job.
Editing by Martyn Herman