Six days ago Luis Suarez all but ushered England out of the World Cup, taking great pleasure in doing so as he promptly explained to the Uruguayan and British media, yet England had to thank him yesterday.
Suarez’s latest rush of blood to his head – or rather, to his teeth – ensured all the attention on Group D’s final day was focused on Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder and the Liverpool striker’s gums, rather than on England exiting the World Cup through the back door.
The game that when the draw was made was regarded as the easiest of the tasks awaiting Roy Hodgson’s men lived up to the expectations, in the sense that England managed where they had failed against Italy and Uruguay.
That their achievements consisted of keeping a clean sheet and getting a point against an already qualified Costa Rica side speak volume for how grim England’s present is, despite Hodgson’s best efforts to convince us all that England are a work in progress and not an utter failure.
“I’m pleased to have given the fans something to cheer,” said Hodgson after England limped to a 0-0 draw against one of the World Cup’s surprise package, ensuring they left the world’s biggest tournament without a single win for the first time since 1958 – incidentally the only time England had failed to make it out of their group.
Before the beginning of the tournament, to a man the England camp had stressed that they had traveled to Brazil without any particular expectations, insisting that the tournament was simply another stepping stone on the path of developing a generation of promising youngsters.
It was, in fairness, a very sensible approach to adopt and a very non-English one too, considering the hyperbole that had surrounded Fabio Capello’s team in South Africa four years ago and Sven Goran Eriksson’s squad in the tournaments before that.
England’s first game was a pleasant surprise for many, with Hodgson’s men playing as well as England had at a major tournament for a decade, taking their game to Italy with surprising verve and, even though defensive mistakes condemned them to a defeat, there were plenty of positives to be taken as England emerged from the heat of Manaus.
Between their first and second game, however, the wheels, inexorably, began to fall off England’s bandwagon.
With the spectre of elimination suddenly very real, the low expectation mantra was initially put aside as fans realised that, young players or otherwise, their team ought to find a way to get past Uruguay.
Once they had failed to do so, the frantic rush to find some positives from a disappointing World Cup campaign began, with England’s low expectations becoming an excellent excuse for Hodgson and the FA to fall back on.
“See?”, they seemed to say, “we told you we weren’t going to get anywhere this year, no point getting too upset about it”.
Except that there are plenty of reasons to be disappointed about this England team and the way this campaign has been handled.
Hindsight is a wonderful gift, of course, but if Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka are really the best centre-back pairing English football can offer, then the expectations have to be kept to a minimum.
Granted, only Spain conceded less goals than England during their qualifying campaign, but Cahill and Jagielka were ruthlessly exposed against the sort of world class opponents they had never come across during the qualifying stage.
Their understudies, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, were so poor against Costa Rica that one feels Hodgson could be stuck between a rock and hard place in his quest to lead England to Euro 2016, while other youngsters had limited chances.
Raheem Sterling impressed against Italy but his impact was almost nullified once he was shifted out wide against Uruguay, while Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Jack Wilshere should not be judged on the basis of what they did in Brazil, for they were engulfed in rather than responsible for their team’s mediocrity.
It was telling, however, how England finished their final game at the World Cup with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard on the pitch. Emotional inclusions they might have been, but it didn’t bode well for the prospect of the future generation.
Hodgson will stay on, mainly due to the lack of suitable alternatives, but will not have any excuses to cling on when England begin their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. Low expectations will no longer be an option, England will simply have to deliver and they might have made things a whole lot more complicated for themselves over the last two weeks.