Misfiring England still have reasons to be cheerful
By Ed Osmond
(Reuters) - England huffed and puffed their way to an uninspiring 0-0 draw with Slovakia on Monday but although they finished only second in Group B, their Euro 2016 campaign is still firmly on course.
A game against the Group F runners-up, Hungary, Iceland, Portugal or Austria, is the next, not-too-daunting, challenge for Roy Hodgson's team who have played solidly enough in the tournament without ever hitting top gear.
Hodgson did leave six first-choice players out of his starting side against Slovakia and if they reach the quarter-finals the stuttering displays of the group stage will be forgotten.
"If we had won the game people would say we didn’t miss the players who were left out and when we don’t they say the team selection is wrong, I am used to that one," Hodgson told reporters.
"We brought players on which was useful. It kept up our domination but I am not certain it would have made a vast difference because we would still playing against 11 players in defence."
Although England's overall position is pretty healthy, concerns do remain after the performances in the group matches.
They conceded a late equaliser to draw with Russia, needed a stoppage-time goal by Daniel Sturridge to beat Wales 2-1 and dominated possession against Slovakia without ever looking likely to break down their massed defence.
England scored only three goals in three games as much-vaunted strikers Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy failed to transfer their prolific Premier League exploits to the international arena.
Kane lost his starting place after looking jaded in the Russia match and in the first half of the game against Wales.
Vardy and Sturridge were sent on as halftime substitutes against the Welsh and both scored but, handed starting berths against Slovakia, they never looked like a threatening combination in St Etienne - Vardy wasting England's best chance of the match when he shot straight at the keeper after breaking clear early in the first half.
Possibly the biggest concern for Hodgson is the lack of creativity in his midfield.
Captain Wayne Rooney, who impressed in his new deep-lying role against Russia and Wales, was left out of the starting lineup against Slovakia and Jack Wilshere was handed a chance to stake his claims.
The Arsenal player, who has barely played in yet another injury-ravaged season, endured an anonymous game and the introduction of Rooney and Dele Alli as second-half substitutes did little to improve England's link play.
Having made it safely through to the knockout stages without playing particularly well, however, Hodgson has reason to be optimistic about his team's prospects for the rest of the tournament.
"Finishing second is a disappointment but we are still in the last 16 and who is to say the team we will play will be that much stronger?," he said.
"You just don’t know, the way we are playing I am not frightened of anybody."
(Editing by Mitch Phillips)