Gerrard makes victory pitch
England skipper says patchy ground will not stop Three Lions from beating Italy
ENGLAND v ITALY
(Tomorrow, 6am, SingTel mio TV Ch 141 & StarHub TV Ch 223)
England's skipper will permit neither excuses nor failure. Steven Gerrard made a pitch for victory this morning (Singapore time), by refusing to blame the playing surface of the unfinished Arena Amazonia.
He trained on the patchy, pock-marked pitch this morning ahead of the Group D opener against the Italians and refused to wave a get-out-of-jail free card.
"With experience, I've learned to wait to make a judgment for myself," he said.
"It's easy to believe other people and get the wrong impression, and believe the wrong thing. But I've been on the pitch and it's totally fine," he stressed, clearly in no mood to play down England's chances.
"The grass is a perfect length, the sun is off the pitch at 4.30pm (local time) and we kick off at 6pm, so I'm sure the water will stay on it and stay quick and zippy."
Sitting beside him at the press conference, an equally upbeat Roy Hodgson shrugged off the pitch's very public criticism.
"I don't see any reason for criticism at all. I think it will suit both teams, the grass is at the appropriate length. It's not a problem."
The surface certainly appeared greener at this morning's training session, with groundsmen working furiously around the clock to improve conditions.
The Arena Amazonia remains a patchwork of unfinished walls, plaster patches, corrugated fences and exposed cables, but the preparations of the England camp have been exemplary.
A trip to a local shopping mall proved disastrous, after the players were mobbed and had to return to the relative sanctuary of the coach and then the hotel.
But the atmosphere is clearly relaxed and quietly confident.
Indeed, Hodgson pointed out that Danny Welbeck has recovered from his minor knock, leaving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the only injured player in the 23-man squad.
The Three Lions manager stressed that he had two clear reasons for believing England could prevail against the respected, but less adventurous Italians.
"First, I have a good team, a good squad and each player has a clear understanding of what (he) has to do," he said.
"And on the second front, we are well prepared. We're not concerned about the heat or the humidity. We've been training in these conditions for some time and are looking very fit.
"As far as I'm concerned now, we just have to focus on the quality of the Italians and make sure we are a match for them."
Both manager and skipper were discernibly relaxed in their final press conference, as was the subsequent training session, which mostly consisted of some light runs and staying in the shade while Gary Neville barked out some simple instructions.
When Hodgson got down to the more tactical designs, the training session was closed off to the media.
Ever the perfectionist, England's wily manager has left nothing to chance. The technocrat organised a hotel away from the stadium to minimise distraction, but still allowed the players to visit a shopping mall, as a group of course, to avoid the prison-like conditions favoured by Fabio Capello.
From the warm-up friendlies in the heat of Miami and the early arrival in Rio, England's preparations cannot be faulted this time around.
But the performance of his skipper remains pivotal, a tactical point acknowledged by Gerrard himself. There are youngsters to guide past a more experienced Italian side, but he's up for the challenge.
"I think we're a better team than 2012, I think we're a better squad. Confidence is higher and the preparation has been better, in all the qualification games," he said.
"But we know we'll get judged on the games coming up.
"We must play with discipline. It's important we keep all our men on the pitch. We must stay relaxed and stick to the manager's game plan."
From the skipper to the manager, there is a sense of organised togetherness and a genuine belief in not only the personnel, but Hodgson's template for success. England are not prepared to make any excuses.
The unfinished Arena Amazonia may not be quite ready, but the Three Lions most certainly are.
● 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 email@example.com or to Neil on twitter @neilhumphreys using the hashtag #AskNeil. He'll answer the best ones in his daily videos.