Ukraine 0 England 0 match report: Roy Hodgson's labouring team draw a little closer to World Cup in Brazil
Avoiding defeat was the key task in Kiev
If Greg Dyke had been here in Kiev tonight he may wish to have revised the boldest of his targets last week. That one about winning the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Mr Chairman? We think it might be a shade too soon.
It is enough that England emerged from Kiev with a point that puts them in charge of their World Cup qualifying group H with two home games remaining against Montenegro and Poland next month, although you would have to say that it is still a fragile grip that they exert. This was, to put it bluntly, a bloody awful game made watchable only by the fact that in terms of qualification the stakes were very high indeed.
Back in England, the scorn poured down on Hodgson who met with reports of dissatisfaction with his usual disbelief. He argued that it had been a performance of determination given the quality of those players missing such as Wayne Rooney and the hostility of the stadium. In that instance he had a point. But it was pushing it to say that this was a match of “good quality”.
With two qualifiers remaining, no-one could argue that England have cruised to the top of their group - their lead is a single point - under Roy Hodgson. They have stuttered and stumbled and fought and defended and they have still not beaten any team ranked higher than Moldova, the 123rd best side in the world.
The worry for England is that the two teams they must now beat are Montenegro and Poland, who occupy the third and fourth places respectively in group H and still entertain hopes of second spot and a play-off place. Ukraine must also play Poland at home but their final match is a three-point gimme in the principality of San Marino.
As for tonight, yes there were moments when England stood strong and got a foot in when the decidedly average Ukrainians threatened. That old determination that is passed down in the generations of English football was evident. But so was the genetic defect that prevents them from passing to one other. And they hardly mustered a shot on goal worthy of the name.
Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the reliable James Milner: these are the players who scrapped their way through a game against a very limited but spirited Ukraine team. It was a rough old night for Kyle Walker and Jack Wilshere, the latter of whom was substituted with 23 minutes to play and, sadly, not before time.
For Rickie Lambert too, it was a sobering lesson in the quality that is required on a big night in international football when one's touch has to be perfect and time and space are at a premium. He tried to do his best with some pretty ineffective support play from those around him, Theo Walcott included, but this felt like the occasion when the man from Southampton had his limitations exposed.
Hodgson's team knew that they were likely to find themselves in the eye of the hurricane in the early stages of the game and so it proved. And the player who found himself hanging onto the proverbial door frame for dear life was Walker, forced to try to keep Yevhen Konoplyanka quiet.
The Ukrainians' most dangerous attacker had his best moments of the half in those early stages when his pace, even up against the rapid Walker, looked remarkable. But Walker was not the only one struggling. With not even a minute played, Joe Hart went down to smother a ball at the feet of the striker Roman Zozulya and in the tangle that followed was fortunate not to concede a penalty.
It was ugly for England in those opening stages. Panicky in possession and forced into some last-minute clearances they hung on grimly. Jagielka did well to hook away a ball over the England defence after Hart had failed to get a grip on in the far reaches of his area. Cahill bravely got Andriy Yarmolenko's cross out and over the England bar.
Theo Walcott goes down under a tackle (Getty)
At times like this, what is required is a midfield that can keep the ball and build an attack that alleviates the pressure. But failing that one hopes for a midfield that can keep the ball. With Gerrard and Lampard forced so far back to cover Ukraine's attacks, that job naturally fell to Wilshere further up the pitch. But he struggled to get on the ball at all.
Aside from one little burst forward and a sway past an opponent that won him a free-kick early on, Wilshere struggled to find his range in his passing. Put simply, he gave it away too much. But then he was not the only one. Milner had a slow start and Walcott was having trouble affecting the game.
It was telling that England looked at their best from corners, in particular a Cahill header that took a deflection and went over on five minutes. Lambert's touch was too heavy for the decisive balls in behind defenders that Walcott could run onto. With five minutes left of the first half, Milner on the left played a ball into the Southampton striker with his back to goal. Something subtle and imaginative was required. Lambert missed it altogether.
What became evident as the early pressure on England abated somewhat was that this is not a particularly dangerous Ukraine side. Certainly Konoplyanka is a player worth watching but in general the lack of composure when they did find themselves in good positions, and a definite brittleness at the back, made them beatable.
The problem for England was that with Wilshere off-colour in the first half and Lambert, to put it mildly, looking rather out of his depth, there were so few quality chances created in the Ukraine area.
For all his willing running, it got little better for Lambert after half-time. To borrow an old joke, his second touch was too often a tackle, not least on 51 minutes when a ball cannoned so far off his chest that he was obliged to stick a boot in too far to retrieve it. He escaped the booking.
While Konoplyanka looked a cut above with the ball at his feet he flitted in and out of the game, much to England's relief. Ukraine failed to create the chances at the start of the second half that they had at the start of the game. On 65 minutes, Hodgson had Ashley Young out of his tracksuit and ready to come on but thought better of it, then finally bringing him on a few minutes later for Wilshere.
Young went out to the left side while the industrious Milner was switched to a more central position. The first touch from the Manchester United man was hardly assured and it set in motion one of Ukraine's better attacks, led by their substitute Roman Bezus. He made one of the best passes of the day and the only relief for England was that Walker's foul on Zozulya was just outside the box.
Gary Cahill battles for the ball (Reuters)
The right-footed Konoplyanka hit a free-kick that clipped the edge of the wall and went wide. England survived but with 20 minutes left, the demands were starting to tell. In the last three minutes Hodgson brought on Tom Cleverley, presumably to keep the ball, and even he started to give it away. By the end it was only really Ukraine who looked like they wanted to win and England were fortunate they never had the quality to do so.
Ukraine (4-1-4-1): Piatov; Fedetskiy, Khacheridi, Kucher, Shevchuk; Stepanenko; Yarmolenko (Khomchenovskiy 90), Halovskiy, Gusiev (Bezus 67), Konoplyanka; Zozulya (Seleznyov 90).
England (4-2-3-1): Hart; Walker, Cahill, Jagielka, Cole; Gerrard, Lampard; Walcott (Cleverley 87), Wilshere (Young 67), Milner; Lambert.
Man of the match Konoplyanka.
Match rating 4.
Referee P Proenca (Portugal).
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