Having watched England come back so well to beat Sweden on Friday night, I am convinced they can now win an "away" game against Ukraine on Tuesday. Win the group and almost certainly avoid Spain in the quarter-final? That is trickier, given that France have a slightly better goal difference and will be playing a Swedish side who are out of the competition.
Ukraine will have big support and I can see them having a good spell against us for maybe 20 minutes or so in which the defence has to hold out, but we can then catch them on the break or from a set play. Andrey Shevchenko won them the game against Sweden with two headers, what I call instinctive goals, and he can always get one of those but he doesn't frighten me so much these days. Ten years ago yes, but not now. Bringing Wayne Rooney back into the side is a no-brainer and I expect it to be Andy Carroll who makes way for him. Tell Andy he has scored a great goal and we need him to be ready to come on in the last 20 minutes again if necessary, but that Rooney is the man, especially with his Manchester United team-mate Danny Welbeck alongside him. And Andy in my experience of him will accept that. He will be disappointed of course because they all want to play but he will understand that Rooney is a level above him at the moment. I was delighted to see him score a typical Carroll goal with that terrific header, the best of the tournament for me. What I would say is that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has his critics in England, showed Andy with his all-round performance just how far he has to go to get to the next level. Linking up the play, getting shots off, shrugging people off the ball. If Andy wants to improve, that shows him the work he has to do on the training ground on his all-round game. I would keep Ashley Young in but there is a tough call for Roy Hodgson on the other flank between James Milner and Theo Walcott after Theo came on and did exactly what you want from an impact substitute. I'm happy to leave that one to Roy. But England to win.
Team spirit adds missing element
I honestly do not think England would have come back like that in the Sweden game in the recent past. It was a great, great result in the circumstances and what it showed was the power and spirit of this group of players. In the past there has often been a lack of harmony and we have not had the group together for whatever reasons – maybe the Man United-Liverpool factions for instance. This squad, without being as good individually, look very much as though they have a team spirit for one of the first times I can remember. There is a free spirit about them too, which possibly comes from having a good influx of young players there and they will now have the belief that even if they go behind they can come back and do it. The game against France was different because you felt all along that the French had that extra bit of quality which was going to tell eventually. So to come out of the first two matches with four points was a great effort. Of course there was a bad period in the 15 or 20 minutes after half-time against Sweden, but I do a lot of work with defenders and I would have sat mine down and said to them that the first goal was just one of those bad breaks that fell nicely for Sweden – it happens, take it on the chin. The second goal was a poor one and not like us. We also need to remember sometimes that this is top-class international football, in which you are up against quality opposition. England had Ashley Cole and Ashley Young down the left, which in any Premier League team would give you an awful lot of ammunition, yet on Friday we got very little penetration from them.
Full marks for a cool head and clear thinking
Roy Hodgson has now had two competitive matches after the two friendlies, all four games unbeaten, and you have to give him very good marks. His selections and substitutions have been spot-on; he has worked very hard with the talent available; handled the media very well; and you can see from his animation on the sidelines how much he cares. I've seen other England managers on that touchline sometimes looking quite glassy-eyed, as if they're thinking "what on earth do I do now?" Roy has the experience to avoid that and make the right calls with a calm head.
Players are having a ball
I've really enjoyed the tournament and one of the reasons is how open the games have been. A key reason has been the ball itself, which the players are clearly finding much better to control than the one used at the World Cup in South Africa. Several players told me that was a ball they never wanted to see again. It was simply too light, whereas this one seems just right. If you give a free-kick away close to goal you risk a strike like the one Andrea Pirlo hit over the wall for Italy against Croatia. There's also top delivery coming into the box, which is leading to so many headed goals. They're able to hit it with great accuracy and it benefits the attacking players.
Bigger will not prove better
Another reason for the success of the competition is that the smaller format of 16 teams has worked brilliantly. Going to 24 teams for the next tournament in four years' time really devalues it and the consequence will be more games like Spain-Ireland that are just one-way traffic and nobody wants to see that. Apart from one or two teams, the standard has been pretty even, the two host countries who were the lowest ranked have given it a good shot feeding off the backing of home crowds and even a team like Germany, who look very strong, are only winning their games by the odd goal. Going to 24 teams means almost half of the countries in Europe will qualify, and then you have an awkward number for the final stages. It's a backward step.
Time for the old guard to move over?
Any World Cup or European Championship throws up new names, who can eclipse the better-known ones like Cristiano Ronaldo and Robin van Persie who have struggled to make an impact. I said here two weeks ago that Ronaldo needed to make a real impression on a major tournament and he has not done so. Now those two face each other today and one of them can still go through. Maybe that late Portuguese goal against Denmark could be the springboard for them and Ronaldo. Players who have looked top class are the Russian Alan Dzagoev, the Poles Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski , and the Croat Mario Mandzukic. But if money was no object the one I would be signing would be Spain's Andres Iniesta.
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