KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - France’s clinical dismissal of Estonia in their final Euro 2012 warmup on Tuesday was yet another blow to any England fan still confident about their team’s chances in Poland and Ukraine.
Their Group D opener against France on Monday looks an even tougher ask after Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery settled some early defensive nerves by running riot in the 4-0 win, which took Les Bleus’ unbeaten streak to 21 matches.
Expectations of England success were already low given key striker Wayne Rooney’s suspension for the first two games and coach Roy Hodgson only being appointed a month ago following Fabio Capello’s shock February departure.
The naming of the experienced but functional former West Bromwich Albion boss was not exactly welcomed by England’s demanding press and fans, while a slew of injuries since have further eroded hopes ahead of their arrival at their Krakow base on Wednesday.
“The team and squad were built up as the golden generation and the expectation and pressure grew over the years,” captain Steven Gerrard told reporters.
”We were expected to deliver in a major tournament and, by deliver, that means, going to a final or winning a trophy.
“We were put down as favourites in previous tournaments and maybe, because we haven’t done it, the expectations this time will be less.”
England fans almost feel they have a divine right to challenge for major tournaments having “invented the game”, even if one solitary World Cup triumph in 1966 suggests they should generally be classed as also rans.
The English St George flag, barely seen in normal life, suddenly adorns every pub, car bumper and teenage bedroom when tournaments come along while references to Lord Nelson hoisting an “England expects” signal at the battle of Trafalgar abound.
Players from other nations usually get in on the act and put England among the favourites, based on a never-say-die attitude and the strength of the Premier League, albeit packed with foreigners.
This time, with awkward group games against Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine to follow, even rivals are writing England off.
“Rooney is a key man and two matches without my United companion could be too much for England. I sincerely want England to reach the quarter-finals but it’s not going to be easy,” Portugal and Manchester United winger Nani said.
Chelsea’s Champions League winners Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill have been ruled out of the tournament along with Gareth Barry, leading Jordan Henderson and Martin Kelly to be called up.
Midfielder Henderson had an average first season at best at Liverpool while promising defender Kelly is still mainly an Anfield reserve.
“These absences place many doubts about the English for the Euros. Injuries are destroying the team. Their replacements are not at the same level,” Nani added, despite 1-0 warmup wins over Norway and Belgium.
Kelly’s callup was yet another snub to experienced defender Rio Ferdinand, who was left out of the squad. Hodgson has had to constantly deny that Ferdinand’s absence is because John Terry has been charged with racially abusing his brother Anton.
Liverpool - where Hodgson had an unhappy spell before joining West Brom - finished a woeful eighth in the Premier League yet have contributed six players to England’s squad.
Midfielder Gerrard, long viewed as England’s only world class player along with Rooney, is the most recognisable of the six but even he had one of his worst league seasons.
“(The lack of expectation) could suit us and turn into a positive,” he said.
Editing by Justin Palmer