Walcott inspires comeback as England rescue sweet victory
Sweden 2 England 3: Hodgson’s timely substitution helps his ragged side react to Swedish resurgence
The relief washed out from Theo Walcott late last night but there was something in his body language that suggested he was also letting out no small amount of indignation.
The four years since that hat-trick he scored against Croatia in Zagreb seemed to proclaim him as one of the automatic names on an England team-sheet have brought many more bad moments than good ones – not least when he stood on a golf course and took the call which revealed he wasn't going to the last World Cup.
There was the public dressing down Fabio Capello gave him on the pre-tournament training camp in the Alps. "Theo. I will kill you if you come inside like that again," Walcott later revealed his words to be, explaining that "something happened there that shook my confidence".
There have been the injuries, Roy Hodgson's recent faint insinuation that he cannot be trusted with a starting place, and the real sense of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain powering ahead of him. And the lack of goals. For the 23-year-old, whose swerving 25-yard goal and assist for Danny Welbeck provided something far more significant than that hat-trick, last night's match-winning performance came just in time.
Walcott's moment in the sun may be short-lived. To top Group D and avoid Spain in the quarter-finals, Hodgson may well need a win in Donetsk on Tuesday against a co-host nation desperate to preserve their tournament. James Milner, a Hodgson-type midfielder with his indefatigable willingness to track back, could be the preferred option.
Yet for all the talk of Hodgson's 4-4-2 last night, and the undeniable fact that two goals supplied from wide areas and converted by centre-forwards represents a reward for a bold team selection, Walcott was England's one game-changing player.
Another one of that kind can now prepare for this tournament, of course, and the fact that Hodgson, unsolicited, twice mentioned Wayne Rooney, in the course of answering the first two questions put to him, reveals the sense of anticipation he is feeling. In tournament football anything can happen, especially now with Rooney, the "ace in the hole" that Hodgson has described him to be.
But what fundamentally unravelled last night was a titanic clash between two very average sides. This is the stadium where the heroics of a group of Dynamo Kiev players inspired the film Escape to Victory and there was certainly a bit of that desperation about the sight of England seeking to tunnel their way out of the group. Neither Spain not Italy will be quaking.
This line-up represented a considerable investment of faith in Andy Carroll and Welbeck, with 10 international caps and two goals between them, not a minute of competitive football together before and only 70 goals between them in their entire careers.
But another part of Hodgson's only more attacking strategy was Steven Gerrard's bursts forward. The ball Gerrard lofted into the area midway through the first half was of impeccable precision and pace and Carroll burst ahead to take it, peeling away from Olof Mellbeg and attacking Andreas Granqvist to exploit just the kind of Swedish uncertainty with the aerial ball which Hodgson had talked of.
Carroll swivelled on to the ball to exact extraordinary power on the header and the look on his face as he looked into the black Kiev night showed a man who could hardly believe his fortune.
"Fucking hell," he mouthed and Wayne Rooney, itching for the nation's hopes to be still burning when he arrives on the scene next Tuesday was up on his feet, wearing the widest grin in the house.
Briefly, England settled, displayed some very good width and stretched the Sweden back four. But the concern will be their failure to handle Sweden's own pony-tailed combatant.
Containing Zlatan Ibrahimovic required someone to kill off the balls into his feet which enable him to link the play and send others in. Scott Parker was ultimately not up to the task over the course of the night and England almost rued the consequences of allowing the Swede the space to create.
Ibrahimovic sent Kim Kallstrom in for a shot which flew two inches over Joe Hart's bar and when another advance past Parker took him into the England area, John Terry won one of several vital battles in the absorbing broader contest between the two.
England also demonstrated an inability to deal with the aerial threat they had been so noisy to declare they could exploit against in Sweden. Ibrahimovic's second swing at a free-kick found Mellberg, played onside by Glen Johnson, whose scuffed kick was parried by Hart into Johnson who took it into the net.
Then 10 minutes later a foolish Milner foul on Jonas Olsson – who was pushing him back down the right flank – allowed Sebastian Larsson to hang a high, deep free-kick which granted Mellberg an entirely free header.
England looked shot, before Walcott made the game his own. He equalised with his first touch; five minutes after he had appeared – a swerving 25-yard shot after a corner was cleared to his feet. It took a small but significant touch off Larsson as he flew past the wrong-footed Andreas Isaksson.
The second goal, 14 minutes later, owed much to the surging he run he made into the right-hand channel to clip into the six-yard box the cross which Welbeck twisted audaciously into the bottom-left corner with his right heel. Walcott was still not entirely done – racing again down the right flank to cross for Gerrard who was advancing once more, though this time the captain's route was blocked off.
"Le soleil se leve a l'est [the sun rises in the east]," L'Equipe had proclaimed yesterday morning as the French prepared for their engagement with Ukraine in Donetsk. Thanks to Walcott, England have reason to feel the same. It was a performance worth waiting four years for. The magic is still there, after all, in those boots that sparkled in Croatia.
Booked: Sweden Mellberg, J Olsson, Svensson. England Milner.
Man of the match Walcott.
Match rating 9/10
Referee D Skomina (Slvn)
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