Out-classed England struggle to bridge the gap
By the time shouts of German jubilation filled the air at a half-empty Wembley on Tuesday, it had become painfully clear how far England have to go before they can be regarded as serious contenders for the World Cup.
The depressingly familiar scene that greeted the conclusion of England's 1-0 friendly defeat against their old rivals Germany provided a downbeat finale to a year that brought more questions than answers for boss Roy Hodgson.
Just a month earlier, Hodgson's players had been the ones jumping for joy at Wembley as Montenegro and Poland were put to the sword to swashbuckling fashion to seal England's place at next year's World Cup in Brazil.
The entertaining and dominant nature of England's performances had led some optimistic souls to claim Hodgson had found a formula capable of making his team a genuine force after decades of underachievement.
But any England players or fans dreaming of a triumphant campaign in Brazil have been given a rude awakening over the last week, with even captain Steven Gerrard conceding these defeats would shatter the short-lived feelgood factor around his team.
"I'm sure everyone is going to be down and give us no chance and no hope," Gerrard said.
"What these results will do is bring people down a bit from where they were after the Poland game. They will be a bit more realism and perspective out there.
"But it's important people are not too harsh on us. These games are all about experimenting."
On Friday, Hodgson got an alarming glimpse into the lack of depth behind his established first teamers as an experimental team were out-passed by Chile in a 2-0 friendly defeat.
Then days later, Germany's second string cruised to victory over a more experienced England line-up.
Losing in successive matches at Wembley for the first time since 1977 was a major reality check and the disappointment was palpable as boos from the few fans who had stayed until the finish rang out at the final whistle.
Every flaw in England's fragile make-up was laid bare by the more technically gifted and tactically aware Germans, who were aided by the hosts' obvious lack of confidence when confronted by opponents willing to take the game to them.
It started with centre-backs Chris Smalling and Phil Jagielka, who were vulnerable in the air and struggled to deal with Germany's clever movement off the ball.
The defence weren't helped by England's tepid midfield, where Gerrard's decline and Tom Cleverley's limitations as a passer were brutally exposed.
At 33, Gerrard can no longer produce the lung-bursting box-to-box runs that were the key to his all-action style, which puts too much pressure on the hard-working but uninspired Cleverley.
Hodgson will be hoping Jack Wilshere can return to form and fitness in time for the World Cup as the Arsenal midfielder offers the kind of creativity in the danger areas behind the main strikers that Germany, with the likes of Ozil, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze, have in abundance.
The main bright spot for England was the potential of Tottenham winger Andros Townsend, whose blistering pace and direct running was the only threat to Germany, yet there was no cutting edge up front from the subdued Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge, who clearly need to work on their partnership.
With just a handful of friendlies remaining before the World Cup, Hodgson has few options to shake things up, and his task is made even harder by the derth of English players in the Premier League.
Only 26 percent of top-flight players are English and, given his team's repeated failures at major tournaments, perhaps it was no surprise to hear Gerrard admitting England will travel to Brazil more in hope than expectation.
"We are not one of the favourites, I think we know that," he said.
"Of course there are better teams out there than us. You only have to look at the rankings to see where we are."
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