LONDON, May 18 – Few pundits expect England to be overly troubled by any of their opponents in group C.Instead, meetings with the United States, Slovenia and Algeria will be scrutinised for pointers as to the ability of Fabio Capello’s squad to progress deep into the tournament after a domestic club season that has provided the Italian with encouragement and cause for concern in roughly equal measure.
Capello has been spared the injury headaches that bedevilled Sven-Goran Eriksson in the run-up to the 2002 and 2006 finals, with midfield anchor Gareth Barry the only serious worry on that score.
The early demise of English clubs in the Champions League reduced the demands on his players in the final month of the campaign and Capello will have been cheered by the prolific form of Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard.
On the negative side, other key figures — Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand — have all endured seasons blighted, to varying degrees, by injuries and poor form.
Barry has been an automatic pick under Capello and his ability to shield the back four is so essential to the Italian’s system that he is considering switching to a three-centreback formation if the Manchester City midfielder fails to recover from an ankle ligament injury in time.
The build-up to England’s opening match, against the United States in Rustenburg on June 12, is sure to involve plenty of reminiscing about the only previous World Cup meeting between the two countries.
The Americans’ 1-0 win in Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1950, still ranks as one of the greatest shocks in the history of the tournament.
But it remains the only time England have lost to their transatlantic allies and, despite the United States beating Spain on their way to the Confederations Cup final last year, they would happily settle for a point from the group opener.
Capello’s England comfortably outclassed Bill Bradley’s side in a 2-0 friendly defeat in May 2008 but were given far more problems by Slovenia in a 2-1 win in another Wembley friendly later that year.
Algeria represent more of an unknown quantity but should hold no fears for a squad that, under Capello, has regained the confidence that had drained as a result of their failure to reach Euro 2008 under Steve McClaren.
Friendly defeats by Brazil, France and Spain suggest Capello’s squad remain a little behind the world’s best but they have become efficient at disposing of second-tier nations.
A qualifying group that included Croatia was navigated with ease, England winning nine of their ten matches and scoring 34 goals in the process.
FIFA’s rankings suggest Bradley’s mix of veterans and new faces should join England in the second round but the Americans will be wary of a Slovenia squad that created a major upset by beating Russia in a play-off to clinch their place in the finals.
Matjaz Kek’s squad will arrive in South Africa determined to banish painful memories of 2002, when the country’s first World Cup appearance was overshadowed by a row between star player Zlatko Zahovic and coach Srecko Katanec which resulted in Zahovic being sent home after the first match.
The rest of the squad followed him after three defeats in their group matches but, according to captain Robert Koren, it will be a much more focused and unified squad that arrives in South Africa.
"We try to play more like a team and don’t have one star," Koren said. "We are all good friends and have a good team spirit. It’s a massive difference."
Like the Slovenians, Algeria defied the odds to reach their first finals since 1986, via a play-off with arch rivals Egypt, and veteran coach Rabah Saadane believes his squad can look forward to playing without fear.
"The objective for our young players was to reach the World Cup in the first place," he said. "Now that they’ve achieved that there’s no pressure on them whatsoever."
Fancied: United States
Underdogs: Algeria and Slovenia