Wayne Rooney seizes his chance to lift England's expectations at Euro 2012
England 1 Ukraine 0
You would be hard pushed to call it one of the great performances, and this England Euro 2012 squad does not have the depth of some of its predecessors but it was hard to ignore the feeling last night that Roy Hodgson's team could be on the brink of something significant.
Top of the group ahead of a France team beaten last night for the first time in 23 matches and having avoided Spain in the quarter-finals, it is Italy who stand in the way of England's first semi-final appearance in a major tournament since Euro '96. Along the way they rode their luck at times, they stole a goal through an off-key Wayne Rooney and they had a debt of thanks to a goal-line assistant who, quite frankly, should have gone to Specsavers.
That was for the Ukraine "goal" that crossed the line on 62 minutes, a shot hit by Marko Devic, parried by Joe Hart and scooped away by John Terry right under the nose of the Hungarian "additional assistant referee" who inexplicably judged it not to have gone in. Those men with the wands by the goal are Michel Platini's bright alternative to goal-line technology and one can only hope last night embarrassed him.
That trite football belief that all things even themselves out in the end in this chaotic, absorbing sport should always be treated with suspicion but after Frank Lampard's "goal" that was never given in Bloemfontein against Germany two years ago, there was not too much guilt on the English side for embracing the incompetence of Platini's hapless goal-line watchers.
Now in the last eight of Euro 2012, and with a path to the final that would potentially pair England with Germany in the semi-finals, it feels as if Hodgson, the emergency manager, has exceeded the country's hopes already. Last night he pleaded that the perennial questions of expectation be left aside but in reality he knows he is on a free pass now. England have won Group D with seven points and that is more than most anticipated.
The likes of Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo await in Kiev on Sunday. England last played Italy more than ten years ago at Elland Road, the Italians won 2-1, and last beat them at the Tournoi, in Nantes, in June 1997. It is also worth remembering England have never beaten what might be considered a major football nation in the knock-out stages of a big tournament outside of their own country.
In the first half last night England found themselves overwhelmed at times and beat the kind of retreat that has been depressingly familiar over the years.
There were bulwarks against the tide of blue shirts, especially Steven Gerrard who is playing as well for England now as he ever has. So too the defensive partnership of Terry and Joleon Lescott as well as Hart, but, my goodness, as times it was close.
England got to half-time at 0-0 having made a side that was pretty average, and missing its leader Andrei Shevchenko from the starting line-up, look much better than they are. England dropped off too deep, they gave the ball away and they made mistakes but for once they did not fold under pressure.
Hodgson picked a team without Theo Walcott in it which suggested that he was not quite prepared to take the handbrake off with a draw enough to see his side through.
As it was England did not simply play the first half with the brake applied, at times they figuratively climbed into the passenger seat and shut their eyes.
There was little doubt that they would be under pressure early on but unfortunately for Hodgson's team, that pressure continued as they went into reverse. Their confidence wilted with every good passage of play the Ukrainians enjoyed. To compound it, Rooney's touch was heavy, never more so than when he had an excellent chance to score on 28 minutes.
Then, his back-post header from Ashley Young's cross from the left wing only needed steering inside Andrei Pyatov's post but instead he did not get the full connection. Rooney was not the only one. Young had one of those days when he cannot force his way into the game.
Even the ever-reliable Scott Parker was unable to get a grip of the game and when he was put on his backside by the turning and twisting Andrei Yarmolenko in the 42nd minute you feared the worst but the Ukrainian missed with his shot.
A better side than Ukraine would have been way out of sight by half time. They enjoyed 57 per cent of possession in the first half and in the left-sided, right-footed Yevhen Konoplyanka had a player more than capable of giving Glen Johnson problems. Without Shevchenko, who came on for the last 20 minutes, they lacked an edge.
England, on the other hand, proved themselves capable of seizing the moment. Rooney might have headed wide in the first half but the 29th goal of his international career was a tough one to miss. It was his first tournament goal since Euro 2004 and it was steered in with his head at the back-post after fine work from Gerrard on the right side.
A recycled corner had fallen to the England captain out on the wing and he powered past Yevhen Selin before his cross took a double deflection on its way to squirming past the shaky goalkeeper Pyatov on its way to Rooney who was unmarked. It owed most to the drive of Gerrard who was excellent.
The Ukraine goal-that-never-was, on 62 minutes, started with Artem Milevskiy, who played in Devic, being in an offside position and not penalised. There was never an easy moment to point that out to Oleg Blokhin, the Ukraine coach, in the aftermath who offered a journalist from his country to come outside for a "man-conversation" in the course of an eventful post-match press conference.
Walcott, Andy Carroll and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all came on in the final stages as England kept an increasingly tired Ukraine at bay. With the news of France's result displayed on the stadium screens, England never once lost their focus. They did not make life easy for themselves but they are alive in this competition, and that will do for now.
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