England are fast approaching the 2014 World Cup, where in just six months time they will be tested against the best nations in the world, in the quest to lift the famous trophy for the first time in 48 years.

After so many attempts that have ended in disappointment, pain and heartbreak, the expectations seem to be lower for the Three Lions this time. Maybe it was due to the tough group draw, where England were lined up against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica, or a hope that lower expectations may lead to better results – who knows?

Either way, even to qualify out of their group, Roy Hodgson’s men will have to be close to their best in Brazil. With the likes of Balotelli, Buffon, Suarez, Cavani and Ruiz in the first three matches, England’s superstars will need to step up if they want to stay in the country for the knockout stages of the competition.

But who are the three key players that can help England succeed in next summer?

Steven Gerrard

‘Captain Fantastic’ will need to stay at his motivating best if he wants to lead England to a successful campaign. The Liverpool midfielder will be 34-years-old when the tournament commences, with it quite possibly set to be the last international competition he will play in. With youngsters like Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley already pushing for a first team place, Euro 2016 looks a long way away for Gerrard, meaning he should be prepared to give it his all in Brazil, and finish on a high.

Now playing in a defensive midfield role, Stevie G will be looking to control the tempo of the match, as well as unlocking the opposition defence with key passes and through balls. With the ability to drive forward and score from outside the box, Gerrard can be a match winner both passing and shooting. A player who has always led by example, the skipper will be as driven and committed as ever to push his nation on. But if Gerrard struggles to make an impact on the game, then things could turn dark for the Three Lions. If Rooney begins to get frustrated at a lack of service from Gerrard, then suddenly half the team will start dropping if the Reds legend doesn’t control the game.

Wayne Rooney

The striker has one mission to complete this summer. Score his first World Cup finals goal. It’s incredible to think that Rooney, one of the best strikers in world football, is yet to score a goal on the biggest of stages. The 28-year-old may have played a deeper role in the last 18 months than the last time he made an appearance at the tournament, but he’s still one of the biggest scoring threats that will be in Brazil.

A strong, physical forward, Rooney’s experience playing just behind a striker has developed his game further, meaning he can create opportunities as well as being able to finish chances himself. But while the United striker has his stunning moments, he has also his negative side. Discipline is still an issue. We all remember his red card against Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, and he has had familiar incidents since. The forward missed all three of England’s Euro 2012 group matches after kicking out at Montengro’s Miodrag Džudović. And just last month the forward was lucky not to be sent off after kicking out at Cardiff City’s Jordan Mutch.

It comes down to which Rooney flies to Brazil. Will we get the star striker who scores vital goals, terrorises defenders and earns a standing ovation? Or will the quick-tempered, hot-headed forward get unhappy at a lack of service in matches, and take his frustration out on the opposition?

Phil Jagielka

England will be flying to Brazil with arguably their weakest defence at a World Cup. For the last four tournaments, the Three Lions manager has had Premier League and possibly Champions League winning defenders at his disposal. Be it Campbell, Keown and Adams around the turn of the new millennium, or Terry and Ferdinand in 2006 and 2010. But now the pair, barring any shock comebacks, look set to be watching the matches as retired internationals.

While, in the greatest of respect, Phil Jagielka hasn’t yet been recognised as a world-class centre-back, he has the opportunity to make an impact against the world’s best strikers. The 31-year-old has stepped up since Terry and Ferdinand retired from the international stage, and has raised his game for both club and country. The former Blades defender has had a terrific start to the current Premier League season, helping Everton keep eight clean sheets, and concede only 15 goals, the joint best defence in the league. His composure, and ability to read the game and intercept crucial passes looks set to earn him a starting place in Hodgson’s team, with the opportunity to showcase his talent against the likes of Balotelli, Suarez and Cavani in the group stage.

But, on his international competition debut, if the Toffees defender struggles to cope under the new pressure, in the heat and humidity of Manaus, England could be exposed at the back, with players like Giovinco, Balotelli and El Shaarawy all looking to skip past the England back line.

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Thomson Sport

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