Momentum with England at Euro 2012 as Roy Hodgson goes on attack
Walcott gamble shows manager is happy to take risk – while hostile atmosphere in Ukraine tonight will spur Gerrard on
It was the two-year anniversary yesterday of England's dismal 0-0 draw with Algeria in Cape Town at the 2010 World Cup finals, a performance so poor that it sparked any number of controversies. Wayne Rooney swearing about England fans into a television camera as he walked off the pitch. John Terry's misguided attempt to take over team matters in a subsequent press conference. It bottomed out two games later in defeat to Germany and England were on their way home.
Five of the players who started that game in Cape Town will surely start against Ukraine tonight – Terry, Glen Johnson, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and Rooney – and, in reality, the shape of the team, as well as its key personnel, has changed very little from two years ago. The most significant change from South Africa has been that for once the level of expectation is more realistic, although even Roy Hodgson had to admit that with a place in the quarter-finals for the taking with a point from tonight's game, it is creeping up again.
There has been progress of a sort, although as ever with England it is fragile. The performance, not to mention the result, against Algeria two years ago put enormous pressure on the team for the final game against Slovenia, which they won before stumbling into that humiliating 4-1 defeat by Germany. This time the comeback against Sweden gives grounds for some confidence but not so much that it could be erased quickly if things start badly in Donetsk.
Gerrard was captain back in 2010 too, although after Terry's demotion and Rio Ferdinand's injury, he considered himself, in the words of his team-mate Jamie Carragher, no more than a "caretaker" in the role. Yesterday Gerrard acknowledged that there was a difference this time. "The reason for that is because of how we are playing. We are playing well and we are playing positively. We are enjoying how we are playing.
"Everyone knows in South Africa the team weren't playing at a good level. It becomes difficult and hard work. But we can't wait for the game. When you are playing well it breeds confidence and belief. We have got Wayne Rooney back and everything is positive."
It will not simply be the return of Rooney tonight that dictates the mood, but the kind of team that is set up around him. He will partner Danny Welbeck in attack, with Andy Carroll making way, but it is the decision that Hodgson makes elsewhere in the delicate balance of his team that will tell us more. The signs last night were that he will go for Theo Walcott, fit again having missed training on Sunday, in preference to James Milner on the right side of midfield.
That selection would say something about the way in which England intend to play. There is nothing wrong with Milner, who has been his reliable self in the two games he has started this tournament, but Walcott is unquestionably a gamble, albeit with potentially greater rewards. Yes, he could win Hodgson the game as he did with those piercing runs against the Swedish on Friday but equally, if he struggles to find his feet, he could give England a vulnerable side they could well do without.
As of this morning, Hodgson has a keen sense of momentum behind his team, one which was badly lacking in England's worst tournament performances in recent memory – such as Euro 2000 and the 2010 World Cup finals – and at this stage he recognises that to surrender it would be disastrous.
"If you sit back you give the initiative to the opposition and you can't be surprised when sometimes they take it," Hodgson said.
"Our aim will be to try to take the initiative, like I thought we had for a very long period in the game against the Swedish team. That is what we will be trying to do but they will be trying to do the opposite and that is what makes it a fascinating game of football."
Hodgson said that he had not shown his squad the video of their game against Sweden, preferring instead to review it with his coaching staff and pass their conclusions on to the players. His reasoning was that the players did not need to be exposed to their mistakes, in case that diminished the confidence that the win had given them. "Sometimes you just have to accept there [will] be a period where you are going to lose the control you had and the opponents spring a surprise. It is important sometimes to enjoy the victories."
Already the landscape around England is changing. The Dutch, who came to Wembley in February, and gave Stuart Pearce's team a schooling in attacking play, are already home. The Russians, who started Euro 2012 with the kind of flair that eludes England so often at major tournaments, are also out. These are only peripheral reasons for confidence but they encourage Hodgson's players to feel less daunted.
There was a ham-fisted attempt by the Ukraine manager Oleg Blokhin last night to shift the pressure on to England when he told his press conference that the host team had "nothing to lose". With home support in the Donbass Arena – a stadium the national team has not won at in six attempts – that rang a little hollow, especially when Blokhin went on to lose his temper with questions about Andrei Shevchenko's fitness.
"I have 22 other players," Blokhin said, his voice rising with indignation. "Stop asking about Shevchenko. The subject is closed." If this was his attempt to prove that Ukraine were not feeling the pressure, then the 1975 European footballer of the year is certainly no Sir Alex Ferguson when it comes to the mind games.
When Gerrard was asked about the prospect of playing in front of a largely hostile home crowd, his answer was to the point. "I can't wait. 50,000 fans all cheering. That is what you play football for." The atmosphere, the home support is the least of England's worries, it is everything else – keeping the ball, hoping that Rooney can reintegrate, avoiding defensive calamities – that will trouble them. They know from bitter experience how quickly it can go wrong.
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