English seek less stubborn opponent to show attacking threat

England coach Roy Hodgson, Dele Alli and Jamie Vardy leave the pitch at the end of their Euro 2016 Group B match against Slovakia on Monday. (Francois Mori/AP)

SAINT-ETIENNE, France — England seems sure that facing more attack-minded sides in the knockout stages of the European Championship will work to its advantage.

The team, which stumbled rather than sauntered through to the round of 16, insists it’s not going to be consumed by any negativity back home. Headlines back home Tuesday say the team is "second rate" for finishing behind Wales in Group B.

England failed to top the group after a pair of draws against Russian and Slovakia. Its only win came against Wales. But behind the scores, there are encouraging signs for coach Roy Hodgson’s young, emerging team.

England was on top in all three group games. The team just needs a little bit more ruthlessness up front and space to unpick opposition defences

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"We have come up against some really resilient defending and some good goalkeeping but I think everyone is well aware there is going to be a game when we do start getting what we deserve," England goalkeeper Joe Hart said.

"It would be nice (to have a more open game) because we would get more room but at the same time that brings more danger."

The expanded 24-team format at Euro 2016 means that a majority of third-place teams advance to the knockout stages, and that has infused an element of caution in some of the teams.

Hodgson said he is hoping England gains the "opportunity to show we’re quite a good counterattacking team if other teams come out to play".

For now — unusually for a major tournament where the English have previously looked jaded after an arduous Premier League season — the players have a week off.

"The week could be good — it freshens (everyone) up, everyone shakes off little niggles," said defender Gary Cahill, who has experienced hip discomfort. "The tournament has been intense. It’s been played at a great pace. To have a little rest now will hopefully be a positive for us."

Some players have already had more of a rest than expected.

England’s all-time top scorer, Wayne Rooney, and Harry Kane, last season’s leading Premier League scorer at Tottenham, only came on in the second half on Monday against Slovakia, which showed little attacking intent. They couldn’t prevent the 0-0 draw which meant England finished behind Wales.

"I’ve not been involved in a one-sided game as much of that for a long, long time," Cahill said. "To not get the win in the end is frustrating."

Whether the gamble to make so many changes backfired will only become clear as England negotiates the second phase of Euro 2016.

"To go far in the tournament you need fresh legs," Hart said.

England won’t know who it’s facing in the round of 16 in the French Riviera city of Nice until Wednesday when Group F completes. England meets the runner-up of that group, which remains wide open, with Hungary, Iceland, Portugal and Austria all able to advance.

There’s one team England naturally wants to avoid: Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, which heads into its final match against leader Hungary in third place.

"The way we are playing we shouldn’t fear people but it’s by far from an easy game (Portugal)," Cahill said. "It’s a very, very difficult game and I think that they have yet to get going yet."

Looking ahead, host France could be England’s quarterfinal opponent.

"If we do play them, if we are lucky enough to get through, it will be interesting," Hodgson said. "I don’t think France will be playing in the same way as Russia, Wales and Slovakia played against us.

"I think they’ll be asking questions of us when they get the ball, trying to put pressure on us with their attacking football."

And that’s just what England wants: a more ambitious opponent willing to take risks so they can showcase their own attacking qualities rather than having to pick their way through a dogged defensive unit.

England has a week to get it right.

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