James Lawton: Hodgson's calls vindicated on night of high English drama
It was a goal that could have come from a museum - but what a relic
Theo Walcott, the quick and haunting enigma of English football, arrived as a hero three years ago when he destroyed Croatia as the spectre lurking over the English game.
Last night he chopped down some Swedish pines which were growing extremely tall indeed, with the threat of not only maintaining their unbeaten competitive record against England but also scoring a crushing victory that would have left the regime of Roy Hodgson in early ruins.
That fate would not have been totally undeserved, but if fighting your way out of a corner is the mark of a team with some hope for the future this was a triumph to be valued highly indeed.
Walcott scored a goal and made one, and so for a little while at least he can celebrate once again as a man you can turn to when something dramatic simply has to occur.
The night should not have been so fraught after the one-two delivery from Steven Gerrard and Andy Carroll that landed so devastatingly on Sweden.
It was an opening goal which might have come out of a football museum – but what a relic, what a piece of stupendous timing and power. And also, if he happened to be watching, what a tormenting glimpse of that which might just have been for the former manager of the maker, Gerrard, and the taker, Carroll.
Kenny Dalglish no doubt imagined such a combination inflicting routine devastation when he made the £35m move for Carroll that brought him only a rising tide of mockery and, some believe, a key reason for the axe that fell at the end of the season
There was. too, an additional irony when Gerrard looked up in the 23rd minute and saw his Anfield team-mate advancing on the Swedish goal with some menace. It was the sight of another manager who suffered the ultimate loss of face at Liverpool, Hodgson, leaping in the air when Carroll met the superb, deep cross quite perfectly and gave goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson not the remotest chance.
Hodgson, one game away from the salvation promised by a contrite and impatient Wayne Rooney, had every reason to be euphoric. His decision to play Carroll in partnership with the quick and skilful Danny Welbeck at the expense of the highly promising and combative Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could have gone spectacularly wrong. When Carroll is bad, he can look very bad indeed, as he reminded us in a guileless opening statement that included the concession of two free-kicks in as many minutes.
But then again, when he is good, he can generate the most undiluted terror. His England team-mate John Terry can vouch for this after being mauled twice at the end of the season but his horrors were no greater than those of the Swedish defence, who could only watch as he headed in with extraordinary venom.
Hodgson was, it has to be said, reacting to a little more than vindication of a single selection. With France claiming the leadership of Group D with victory over Ukraine earlier on a night of ferocious lightning in Donetsk, the need for victory had intensified sharply – and England had looked ragged.
The Carroll goal had redeemed an England performance that had become progressively unconvincing, especially when the Swedish captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave Terry moments which might just have provoked the wish that he had been the one left at home. While the Carroll thunderbolt provided a lift, it was hardly a long-term solution.
Nor was Carroll the unconditional hero. His reckless tackle from behind on Kim Kallstrom set up the free-kick from which Olof Mellberg headed in the equaliser off Glen Johnson early in the second half – then the veteran defender scored again from almost identical circumstances, this time James Milner hacking down Martin Olsson.
Seb Larsson's free-kick had been flighted perfectly at the heart of English folly, which was taking on fatal proportions before the remarkable impact of Walcott, the scorer of remarkable goals who just cannot seem to make himself at home in the England shirt. Here, though, he pulled up a chair with perfect timing when, just five minutes after replacing Milner, he saw his deflected shot flash home off Larsson.
His break down the right soon afterwards, though, was the signal of regained confidence in a player who has so often seemed just one stride away from established international status.
It was a break that outstripped the left side of the Swedish defence and when he crossed, Welbeck was restating again his claims to permanent residence in Hodgson's emerging team. His killer touch was both delicate and emphatic and spoke of English life that had seemed to be draining away.
It was in the end restored with victory but there was something fragile about this survival. England are hanging on, which is something to say at the end of a night that threatened to go quite horribly wrong.
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