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James Lawton: England to win it, Wayne? Ukraine will be hard enough


Before he announced that England have the players and the spirit and the method to overturn 46 years of more or less unbroken futility and become European champions, it was fair to ask Wayne Rooney if he really was going to deliver something special. It is, after all, eight years ago in Portugal in this tournament that he last did anything on an international field in that category. Now another question clamours for answer. Would he recognise football reality if it landed on his head and was written on a large stone?

The truth is England have quite enough of a challenge tonight putting down the last of the local passion for the iconic coach Oleg Blokhin and the revered Andrei Shevchenko to steer Ukraine into the knockout stages of these increasingly brilliant finals. This is the yearning you see almost every time you switch on the TV to be greeted by the sight of Tymur Shamanov filling the screen with joy when Shevchenko nodded in one of his two goals against Sweden.

England, especially with Rooney back in the side, certainly have enough about them to subdue those remnants of Ukrainian optimism that survived the mauling by France – but does this make them anything like serious contenders for the crown? Only if you want to join Rooney thigh-deep in the mythology that England have not been going backwards pretty much since Sir Alf Ramsey made one of his few bad calls in the World Cup quarter-final against West Germany in Leon in 1970.

This is certainly not to damn the recent work of Roy Hodgson. His reorganisation of the team against Sweden last Friday, after the ebbing of the momentum which came with his shrewd decision to throw Andy Carroll against a vulnerable Swedish back line, was a fine piece of tactical calculation. He sent in Theo Walcott on a hunch worthy of Poirot. Not only did it rescue triumph from the jaws of what threatened to be a quite grotesque disaster, it had Rooney, pictured, off his seat with the dreamy look of a vindicated prophet.

Certainly, if the Republic of Ireland have sadly elected themselves to the title of the tournament's worst team by some distance the Swedish are not so far behind. Take away the swaggering Zlatan Ibrahimovic and you would have to conclude they are scarcely a team. So how was it they came so close to wrecking England in Kiev? Because – we should really face it one more time – England are not a whole lot better. Yes, they beat Sweden but with extreme difficulty and when they trailed early in the second half Hodgson, understandably, wore the expression not of a saviour but a victim.

His pragmatic football frustrated a much more talented French team. His ability to think on his feet forged a victory against Sweden. There are other bonuses. Carroll has proved his value as a shock troop. Walcott has found some of that tender self-belief that was put at such risk when Sven Goran Eriksson took him along just for the ride in the World Cup of 2006 and Fabio Capello brutally dumped him four years later. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looks an authentic contender and, some time in the middle distance, Jack Wilshere may give Hodgson the chance to do something more than pick up pieces, as in developing an authentic rhythm. Danny Welbeck has come through a rite of passage with impressive aplomb. Joleon Lescott has been notably obdurate.

Maybe Rooney has reached a point in his career when he believes he can reach out and find some of those qualities which made him such an outstanding prospect when he arrived in Lisbon as a natural-born leader, a genuine shaper of events.

Perhaps he has extended this belief to the idea he can drive England past the Ukrainians tonight, then carry them into the uplands of football that was already compelling before Cristiano Ronaldo threatened to eclipse all else with his subjugation of the Dutch on Sunday.

Rooney is no doubt in need of a little more definition, just like England, and who knows, a little of it may come starting tonight.