If England are to reach the knockout phase of the World Cup, Roy Hodgson’s side must avoid defeat in their opening match against Italy.
That is the verdict of Sheffield Wednesday head coach Stuart Gray, who failed to lure Matty Fryatt back to Hillsborough on a permanent basis as the striker elected to join Nottingham Forest earlier this week.
The tournament kicked off last night and England begin their campaign versus 2006 champions Italy in the heat and humidity of Manaus tomorrow.
Hodgson’s troops cruised to a 3-0 victory over Peru on May 30 but have drawn their last two warm-up matches against Ecuador and Honduras.
It was Italy who dumped England out at the quarter-final stage of the European Championships two years ago and Gray believes it’s imperative they pick up a positive result this weekend.
He told The Star: “I think the most important thing is that they [England] concentrate and focus on the first game.
“They need to make sure they get off to a good start and then they are not playing catch up. It takes some of the pressure off the second and third games if they get can get a result against Italy. It’s vital we do start well.”
After taking on the Italians, England face Uruguay on June 19, before completing their group fixtures against Costa Rica on June 24.
Gray said: “I think the expectation is not as big on the players this year because Roy [Hodgson] has picked a youthful team. Roy has selected a squad that 99 per cent of our fans wanted to see. He’s got healthy competition.
“We’ve got youth and energy in the team. We are going into a World Cup with a climate where we might have to counter attack at pace.
“There maybe times when we might have to defend a little bit deeper. Whether we can press as high as the British teams like to do, I’m not sure. One thing I do know is that Roy has got players in the team who can carry the ball 60 yards up the pitch and suddenly turn defence into attack. We have got players who can win games.”
Following Ross Barkley’s productive loan spell at Hillsborough during the 2012/13 campaign, Gray hopes the Everton midfielder will shine on the world stage.
He said: “I wasn’t here when Ross joined on loan but I know the staff were very impressed with him.
“He wasn’t playing for his parent club and was another player who benefited from coming here and playing regular first-team football. We gave Ross an opportunity to get confidence and realise what is required to be someone who plays week in, week out.”
Gray is looking forward to watching the tournament and would love England to qualify for the final stages of the competition.
“It’s the pinnacle of anybody’s professional playing career to represent your country in a World Cup,” said the Wednesday chief.
“A successful England team can bring the nation together. We saw that with the Euros in 1996.”