By George, be bold
ENGLAND v ITALY
(Tomorrow, 6am, SingTel mio TV Ch 141 & StarHub TV Ch 223)
The sight was a strange one. With his sword sheathed, St George waited for his luggage.
With chainmail for a hood and a red cape swishing behind his armour, he put his shield to one side to pick up his suitcase.
He wasn't alone. St George impersonators surrounded me, occasionally shouting: "Eng-ger-land, Eng-ger-land, Eng-ger-land."
If the image was surreal, it was certainly a fitting one.
According to legend, St George slaughtered a dragon to win a damsel in distress. The Three Lions must slay their uncertainty to win over a nation mired in indifference.
If they allow boldness to be their friend, they can exceed expectations. If they play safe, they go home early.
England no longer really expect. Roy Hodgson's hopefuls truly have little to lose against the Italians tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Their Group D opener determines not only England's future, but also the complexion of the entire World Cup.
Major tournaments flourish with the Three Lions. The home of Shakespeare brings the melodrama, the surreal and the soap opera. England rarely inspire but they do intoxicate. They captivate. They dominate.
They do not always bring the quality. But they bring the emotional attachment. They reconnect the umbilical cord to the English Premier League. We worship what we know.
Love them or loathe them, tournaments are not the same without the raucous, rabble-rousing mad Englishmen in the midday sun, both on the awful Manaus pitch and in the stands.
World Cup organisers would certainly not celebrate another unceremonious departure.
And there doesn't have to be one.
England can beat Italy.
Defeat the Italians and they've got one foot in the knock-out stages. Lose and they've got one foot in the grave.
IN THE LIMELIGHT
The world is watching Hodgson. His line-up against Italy is a statement of intent; a measure of the man's ambition.
Two years ago at Euro 2012, Andrea Pirlo's impudent penalty sent England packing, but there was no sense of injustice.
Pirlo's spot-kick was a reward for man's personal adventure and a fitting punishment for another man's petty cautiousness.
Hodgson set up not to lose the game and save face and ended up conceding both. If history repeats itself, England's manager will not be handed a chance to make it third time lucky at Euro 2016.
Cesare Prandelli is straitjacketed by a comparative paucity of alternative options, with only Ciro Immobile the likeliest candidate to spring a surprise.
England boast a veritable treasure chest of creative gems in comparison. Adam Lallana, Ross Barkley Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Daniel Sturridge are youthful attacking assets previously alien to the Three Lions' set-up.
At Euro 2012, Hodgson had excuses. Now he has names on a squad list and history in his corner.
England's only success and the odd flirtations with silverware came about when courageous coaches maximised their available resources and pioneered a tactical template.
Alf Ramsey went with his wingless wonders to utilise Martin Peters and Alan Ball and out-ran the West Germans.
Sir Bobby Robson almost cleaned up with a sweeper and a roaming Gazza.
And Terry Venables opted for a 4-4-1-1 to incorporate Alan Shearer's productivity and Teddy Sheringham's rare intellect.
Three bold moves earned a World Cup and two semi-finals. Caution, over-expectation and incoherence damaged the rest.
The new Arena Amazonia pitch here in Manaus is a bit of a mess. As I passed the stadium in the wee hours, the lights were still on as groundsmen worked around the clock to improve a hard, dry and sandy surface that is a throwback to sepia-tinted soccer.
Brazil want to recreate the spirit of 1970 samba, but surely not the playing surfaces.
Still, the bumpy pitch favours neither side.
The humidity is high, but not intolerable. It's rather cool compared to Singapore.
The English and Italians are separated only by mental fortitude.
Regardless of squad depth, the Italians are never less than quietly optimistic (and won the World Cup in 2006 with a comparatively ordinary bunch). They always believe.
England have the superior squad, but never the psychological edge.
Their fans bring the courageous St George outfits. The players usually bring the Shakespearean tragedy.
That could change inside the Arena Amazonia. Manaus might witness a mindset shift.
England are blessed with the youthful boldness to live up to those St George costumes.
If they don't, the fans will feel like they're wearing the Emperor's new clothes all over again.
- Neil Humphreys is following England's campaign across Brazil and will be hosting daily Q&A videos for TNP readers. What do you want to know about the World Cup? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Neil on twitter @neilhumphreys using the hashtag #AskNeil. He'll answer the best ones in his daily videos.
With Uruguay still to come, the Group D opener between England and Italy is one neither side can afford to lose. NEIL HUMPHREYS looks at which key battles might settle the contest.
GARY CAHILL v MARIO BALOTELLI
With Cahill the more senior of England's centre-backs, he is likely to be given the task of removing the most painful of Italian stones from the Three Lions' paws.
At Euro 2012, Balotelli was an insufferable irritant for the opposition. If Cahill muzzles Balotelli, he may render the Italians mute.
WAYNE ROONEY v DANIELE DE ROSSI
If Rooney is shunted out to the left, he may be spared the thankless task of shackling Italy's pit bull. De Rossi sits in front of the back four and barks incessantly for 90 minutes.
Get too close and he bites. More importantly, if he does win possession, he seeks out Pirlo.
Whether it's Rooney, Adam Lallana or even Daniel Sturridge, the pit bull must be put down.
STEVEN GERRARD v ANDREA PIRLO
Carlo Ancelotti transformed Pirlo. Brendan Rodgers rebranded Gerrard. They both became the same player. Older, slower and running on a reduced lung capacity, both men rely on their GPS and muscle memory to get the ball to its destination. They may not be facing each other (Jordan Henderson might do the Italian job on Pirlo), but the end goal remains the same. Starve them or they'll serve their attacking teammates a banquet.
ROY HODGSON v CESARE PRANDELLI
One wants to adapt, but lacks the personnel. The other has the personnel, but struggles to shake off old habits. If Hodgson focuses on his side's creative attributes rather than the Italians', England might dare to dream. But if Prandelli plays his trump card in Ciro Immobile and the striker's Cinderella story echoes that of Salvatore Schillaci in 1990, Italy could progress with an unfancied squad again.
Balotelli can be Italy talisman
Mario Balotelli can fire Italy to the final of the World Cup, says injured Riccardo Montolivo.
The Azzurri skipper, ruled out of the tournament after breaking his leg on May 31, believes that Balotelli could be a talisman for his side.
"Balotelli can express his potential through consistency," the 29-year-old midfielder told Gazzetta dello Sport.
"It has been hard for him to concentrate only on the pitch but the World Cup can be a great opportunity for Mario and a turning point in his career. He may prove a lot in this World Cup.
"There is the right mix of experienced and young players. The core of the group is from Euro 2012 and the new faces can bring something extra." - Wire Services.