By Mitch Phillips
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - It is a long way from the Highveld plateau to Table Mountain but England can set about their World Cup campaign with a clear view from the top of Group C to a Cape Town semi-final.
England always travel with expectations over-hyped by a frenzied media but 1990, when they somehow stumbled to the semi-finals, has been the only time apart from victory on home soil in 1966 when they have reached the World Cup's last four.
This year, grouped with the United States, Slovenia and Algeria, Fabio Capello's Rustenburg-based team are highly fancied to take the top spot that is essential to secure what looks an eminently navigable passage through the knockout phase.
Group C's runners-up are likely to have to get past Germany and Argentina to reach the semis.
Having suffered at the hands of both those nations as well as Brazil and Portugal in previous quarter-finals, England will be desperate to avoid them again.
"It looks like they shouldn't play Spain or Brazil until the semis and if they can't get out of their group they should give up," 1966 winner George Cohen told Reuters.
England, however, are not at their best in fixtures they are expected to win and as traditionally slow starters they face an awkward opener against the United States on June 12.
The modern American side has a very different outlook from the part-timers who produced one of the World Cup's great shocks when they beat England in 1950 and will have no fear.
Fit, well-organized and well-coached, the U.S. gave South Africa a glimpse of their potential in the Confederations Cup last year when they ended Spain's 35-match unbeaten run and pushed Brazil all the way before losing 3-2 in the final.
The U.S. will expect to progress to the second round and, with England's starting lineup still far from settled, a draw in their opener on Saturday would not be a huge surprise, piling the pressure on England to find some goals in their remaining games to secure the all-important top-spot.
Slovenia's impressive warm-up victories over New Zealand and Qatar have boosted their confidence and if they can beat Algeria in Polokwane on Sunday then they too could be in the hunt for a first appearance in the knockout phase.
Algeria are in the finals for the first time since 1986 having ousted Egypt in a controversial playoff but they have looked rusty in their build-up and will need to hit the ground running against Slovenia to have any hope of progress.
(Editing by Nigel Hunt)