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.

 

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