By Zoran Milosavljevic
MANAUS Brazil (Reuters) - England's stalwarts couldn't match the pace of guile of the team's young lions in Saturday’s 2-1 Group D defeat by Italy, raising questions about whether players such as captain Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney should still be automatic starters.
Some of England’s much improved build-up play was in stark contrast to a toothless display against the same opposition in the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, when Italy won on penalties after thoroughly dominating a goalless encounter.
But England failed to make second-half pressure count with indifferent performances by Gerrard and Rooney.
Asked to sum up Rooney’s performance, England manager Roy Hodgson defended one of his most trusted players whose only moment of inspiration was a pinpoint cross for Daniel Sturridge’s equalizer.
"I think there is always going to be a debate on that one player and his performance but people are going to be very harsh if they criticize Rooney because he worked hard and set up the equaliser,” a defiant Hodgson told a news conference.
"I thought he played well. The players gave everything they could possibly give in this match and I don’t think they let me or the country down. We now have to lift our heads up and prepare for the next game."
England’s next challenge is a daunting one against Uruguay, who are also reeling after a shock 3-1 defeat by Costa Rica which means both teams face a make-or-break game in Sao Paulo on Thursday.
With striker Luis Suarez set to return from injury for the Uruguayans, Hodgson will rely on Sturridge and his livewire Liverpool team mate Raheem Sterling to reproduce the display which prompted Italy manager Cesare Prandelli to heap praise on a new-look England.
"Up until just a few years ago England relied on long balls but they are now a skilled team with excellent triangular passing and forwards who can turn quickly and beat their markers with pace and trickery,” he said.
"They have changed a lot and have one of the strongest attacks in the World Cup, which is why I am so satisfied with the result."
But some of the old weaknesses remain and could give Hodgson a selection headache for the upcoming must-win games, with England completing their group stage campaign against Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte on June 24.
Leighton Baines struggled against Italy’s wing-back Matteo Darmian, a surprise starter who gave the England left back a roasting in only his second international appearance.
Costly lapses of concentration played a huge part in both goals England conceded, albeit coupled by some intelligent Italian attacking, while Gerrard struggled in the closing stages as the difficult weather took its toll.
"A few players cramped up and that's something we have to look into but the tempo of the game was very fast and there was no sign that it was ever going to be played at a pace that would suit the heat and the humidity," said Hodgson.
"The fact is that if you lose the first game you probably have to win the next two but so do the teams who play against you. We now play Uruguay and Costa Rica, our fate is in our own hands and we hope to produce the right kind of performances that will give us victory."
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic, Editing by Nigel Hunt)