England's golden generation was supposed to peak at the last World Cup. Instead a squad that featured David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Michael Owen collided with the same quarter-final ceiling they had crashed into in Japan in 2002.
The sense of anti-climax was crushing, the hangover a lingering one. The collapse in self-belief that followed Germany undoubtedly contributed to the failure to reach the finals of Euro 2008, but it also sowed the seeds of renewal by prompting the Football Association to send for Fabio Capello. Eighteen months into the Italian's reign, Owen has been cast aside and injury means Beckham will be restricted to ambassadorial duties on behalf of England's bid to host the 2018 tournament.
Gerrard, Lampard and Ferdinand are all still there and with Wayne Rooney having enjoyed his best club season yet, confidence is flowing once more, albeit not quite as freely as in the run-up to either 2002 or 2006. Nine wins in ten matches and 34 goals in qualifying have encouraged the coach to declare that anything less than a run to the 11 July final will be a disappointment.
Sceptics, though, have plenty of evidence with which to make a case for England coming up short once again. The qualifying success, while notable, was achieved primarily at the expense of a Croatia squad that was past its peak and, for Capello, there must be a worry that the same could be applied to some of his pivotal performers.
Only Italy will take an older squad to South Africa and friendly encounters have found Capello's England wanting against France -- possible quarter-final opponents -- Spain and Brazil.
Fatigue and form concerns
Lampard has had another outstanding club season, helping Chelsea to a Premier League and FA Cup double by banging in 27 goals from midfield. But he will celebrate his 32nd birthday on 20 June on the back of another 60-game campaign. Gerrard, who turns 30 three weeks before his team-mate, has had a poor year in a struggling Liverpool side, hobbled in part by the kind of niggling, recurring injuries that have also blighted Ferdinand's season.
Form has equally been an issue for John Terry since Capello stripped him of the national team's captaincy in the wake of revelations about his personal life. The resulting loss of Wayne Bridge from the squad and, with Leighton Baines and Stephen Warnock now the back-up options at left-back, Capello will be anxious that Ashley Cole remains fit for the duration of his squad's sojourn in South Africa.
Emile Heskey is regarded by the coach as the best foil for Rooney in an attack which will also feature the pace of either Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon on the right flank. But Heskey rarely started for Aston Villa in the second half of the season and a return of seven goals in 57 England appearances means including him would essentially be a gamble on his physical presence generating openings for Rooney.
Capello will fret too about the availability of Gareth Barry, who suffered ankle ligament damage earlier this month and may have to be counted out, a possibility which could result in England switching to a three-man central defence given the lack of an obvious replacement for the Manchester City midfield anchor.
The Italian, though, did not win league titles with every club he has managed without knowing something about getting the best out of the resources at his disposal. Under his leadership England have rarely looked dishevelled. The levels of focus, organisation and confidence have all improved with only limited changes in playing personnel from the previous regime. Maybe it really will be different this time around.