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

 



PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas