James Lawton: A night to face the reality of a still relentless decline for England

England avoided defeat in a frenzy of desperate effort. They struggled

Steven Gerrard said the other day that miracles do happen in football and one of them could be an England victory in the next World Cup. He might also have said that it was already time to light the candles and put down the prayer mat.

Last night he received a red card and a fresh insight into the scale of the challenges he faces as an ageing captain of England.

England avoided defeat in a frenzy of desperate effort, and if you had to give them marks for resolution it was impossible to say much of anything kind about their ability to shape one of their most important games in this World Cup qualifying campaign.

For so much of their ordeal they struggled under the glow of a magnificent strike by Yevhen Konoplianka – and if they escaped in the end with a point it was one which they snatched like something they might have grasped in the wind.

On a sultry night in Donetsk a few months ago Konoplianka was the junior partner in a firm which threatened to utterly undermine the first encouraging strides of Roy Hodgson's regime. Last night, though, he carried himself as the chairman of the Ukrainian board with a goal that was as exquisite as it was devastating. For England, it was not so much a wake-up call as a bolt from the sky. It punished sloppy defence and left the England manager with a new appreciation of the ambushes that might come on the road to Rio and the World Cup.

There were plenty of alarms for him in that Euro group game, including a Ukraine goal that was wiped away by official error, but the most disconcerting memory before Konoplianka's superb eruption after 39 minutes last night was the brilliance of the man attacking on the right side of midfield, the beautifully balanced Andriy Yarmolenko. Last night his first major contribution came when he flopped down somewhat melodramatically after Jermain Defoe threw out an arm before sending a fine shot past Andriy Pyatov.

England were indignant but the Turkish referee was sure, as most witnesses had to be, that the England player had pushed his hand into the Ukrainian's throat, and soon enough the official was handing Defoe a yellow card for a similar offence against the veteran defender Antoliy Tymoshchuk. It was also true that Gerrard was fortunate to avoid heavier punishment than a yellow card when he brought his arm down heavily.

What wasn't in doubt in that early going was that England were a lot freer with their hands and arms than their feet. Though Tom Cleverley had three chances to score, the ease with which Ukraine moved on Joe Hart's goal was consistently alarming.

This, certainly, was not the kind of English authority that was promised in the formal dissection of the 141st-ranked Moldova last Friday night. Ukraine, though a mere 45th, did not look like a team who had come ready to submit to any idea that they were inferior – a notion surely dismissed by their coach, the legendary and combative Oleg Blokhin. The great man of the old Soviet team famously offered a critic outside after England's perilous performance in Donetsk and plainly some of that boldness has touched his team.

It was a state of mind that was no doubt buttressed by the memory of quite to what extent Ukraine had held the edge in rhythm and creativity in that last game. For much of last night that difference between the teams was maintained, however much physical pressure England applied.

Cleverley was full of ambition and heart, and produced a splendid effort from an acute angle on half-time, but Hodgson needed more than he could provide as the prospect of England's first World Cup defeat at Wembley in 12 years moved more sharply into focus.

Hodgson also brought off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as he sent in Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge. Welbeck might have scored – and might have won a penalty, but still it was at no cost to the sense that the Ukrainians remain a devastating threat to England's World Cup campaign.

Welbeck does, though, have a special presence around the goal, as he showed with a brilliant strike against Sweden in the Euros, and it was his persistence that won the penalty which gave Frank Lampard another chance to show his nerve from the spot. This he did, after some brief agonising, with huge authority.

It was the best that England could have hoped for on a night when they not only failed to make any sense of their No 3 ranking in the world, but also provoked a thousand doubts about the chance that in two years they will re-announce themselves as serious contenders for the World Cup.

This, if ever there was one, was a night for England to face the reality of still relentless decline.

 

Get Adobe Flash player

 



Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones