When the group draws were announced in December, many wrote off England straight away. Drawn in to a group with a resurgent Italy side and an Uruguay squad with one of the most fearsome front lines in international football, it was an easy thing to do. Recently, though, there's been more reason to take England seriously.
Despite all the criticisms of Roy Hodgson's selections and tactics, England have actually done quite well in recent times. They haven't allowed more than two goals in a match since the last time they faced Italy, almost two years ago in the Euro quarter finals. They even went to Brazil and held the World Cup hosts to a 2-2 draw last summer, an achievement that cannot be understated.
While there's certainly still things for Hodgson to improve and figure out, this England side won't be a walkover for Italy. It'll take a coordinated, concerted effort, and certainly a better performance from the Azzurri than we saw during their tune-up matches over the last few weeks.
Recently, Hodgson's England side has been playing a 4-2-3-1 going forward that collapses in to a flat 4-5-1 without the ball. It's a tight and drilled setup that's not as fluid and flowery as some of the other top sides we've seen so far in the World Cup, but that doesn't mean they're not capable of big moments.
Steven Gerrard will be the main playmaking driver of the squad, operating as the deeper midfielder in the pivot. He's not great defensively, but the tireless box-to-box work of Jordan Henderson and the tactical shift without the ball provide a shield to keep him from getting picked on.
The four forward players have varied, but expect some combination of Daniel Sturridge, Wayne Rooney, and Danny Welbeck, with one of Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere, or Ross Barkley rounding it out depending on the matchup and Hodgson's plans for the match. (ed. - It's been announced that Sterling will be starting today)
Going forward, expect lots of outside-in play trying to get the ball to Rooney or Sturridge, but with plenty of supporting runs behind them to clean up any messes. They don't do pretty very well, but they can bang around with the best of them, and Italy will have to maintain discipline on defense to keep England from scoring.
Steven Gerrard - England's captain is also the lynchpin to their entire playing style and passing game, and will need to be the main focus for Italy's midfield. Take him out of the match, and the long balls over the top that England depend on will be gone.
Wayne Rooney - Rooney is just a shell of what he once was, but he's still a central figure for England. It seems like he'll mostly be starting on the left or behind the striker in the World Cup, where what's left his skillset and work rate will do the most good. He's still capable of a moment of brilliance or two if you don't respect him, so keeping a close eye will be necessary.
Daniel Sturridge - England's newest number nine and the EPL's second-leading scorer last season, Sturridge offers a quality and dynamic that England have lacked up top since Rooney started to decline a couple years ago. He goes through spells of lacking his finish, but he's still far and away England's best option up top.
Jordan Henderson - After a fantastic season for Liverpool, Henderson has recently been inserted as Gerrard's midfield partner in the England setup, and it's gone a long way towards fixing a lot of the problems England has had in that area defensively. It's shocking that partnering Gerrard with a midfielder who can defend a little (read: not Frank Lampard) goes a long way towards improving England's quality.
This is going to be a very tough match for Italy as the two sides match up remarkably well, but it's also very winnable. If gli Azzurri can get things ticking along like we've seen in previous months (though not as much recently), they can win easily. They'll have to play with focus and intensity though, because this England side is no pushover. This is going to be a match that will likely be decided by a one-goal margin, with the winner likely coming late on in the match.