England had appeared to be doing just fine without Wayne Rooney in the side: in fact they’d played seven games without him, losing only once and amassing a 71% win ratio. When he came on for a brief cameo against Belgium the game had already been won. The Three Lions’ only loss in his absence was a 3-2 friendly defeat to the Netherlands back when Stuart Pearce was wishfully auditioning for the summer work experience job kicking about at England’s national team.
However, his return could not have been more emphasized: from a rousing Nike video, which claimed his “time was now,” presumably forgetting the 15 players that had so far pulled on the shirt for England in Group D, drawing 1-1 to Matt Le Tissier’s pre-tournament favourites France and turning around a 2-1 deficit to beat Sweden 3-2 in a Walcott-inspired performance, to the Twitterhype and global media’s coverage of ”England’s Pele.”
England’s real savior thus far?
Ukraine’s hopes were also being hinged on the presence of one man: Andriy Shevchenko. In the 24-hour build-up to the game, the former AC Milan striker was being touted as “50-50″ to make the game; alternatively one could take Bayern Munich midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk’s view who thought it was more 75:25 in favour of his teammate playing, stating that “Shevchenko is a little bit injured.”
Either way, let’s not allow for Ukraine’s “biggest game in the country’s history,” as former Liverpool masterstroke Andriy Voronin put it, and England’s potential place in the quarter-finals revolve around two men………..oh.
There was, however, another game set to play out as the subplot to England’s qualification from Group D: France versus Sweden; top against bottom; Nasri’s ego taking on Ibrahimovic’s ego. The French only needed a point to go through, but would then risk England leapfrogging them into first place if they could beat Ukraine. With European Champions Spain awaiting the runners-up of Group D, the tussle for qualification was also a battle for the top spot.
From the off Ukraine took the impetus to take the upper hand and theie heir apparent Andriy Yarmolenko was looking immediately dangerous, and it was only a string of blocks, an agile Joe Hart and the occasional stray Ukrainian ball that kept the scores level early. The home side, co-hosts Ukraine, playing in the Donbass Arena, Donetsk really did look likely to strike first, despite head coach Oleh Blokhin doing all he could pregame to build England up as the favourites.
The Three Lions certainly weren’t playing like the favourites and despite Roy Hodgson’s so far squeaky clean relationship with the media, his words from the press conference prior to the game were not representative of the first half showing: “I’ve never really understood how you play for a draw,” he told the room, within 24-hours of England seemingly playing out the first half for a draw, “to play for a draw is dangerous if it means allowing the opponents to have the initiative and you just try and camp somewhere deep in your half.” Hodgson had got that bit right and it summed up the first forty-five minutes perfectly: England were setting up camp deep and Ukraine looked dangerous.
“When you do that, you’re inviting them into your penalty area all the time and, as we saw the other night [against Sweden], it doesn’t have to be a good ball in that costs you a goal.” Therefore, it was no surprise that the best chance of the first half fell to Yarmolenko. Just before the half-hour mark, the Dynamo Kyiv forward received the ball in the right hand side of the box, cut inside onto his favoured left foot and bent a shot towards the bottom left hand corner of the goal, just to be denied by Joe Hart.
In contrast, England’s best chance of the first half wasn’t even on target: John Terry had the ball wide right on the edge of England’s half, hit a deep cross-field ball into the far-left corner, which Ashley Young deftly controlled, before cutting back onto his stronger right foot and whipping in a Rooney-bound cross. However the returning England striker failed to execute his jump in timing with the delivery and his header was put well wide. It was symbolic of his first half – nearly, but not quite.
Fortunately, for England, Sweden were holding France to a nil-all game, meaning, according to the BBC, England would go through in first place with 4 points and therefore face 2006 World Cup winners Italy, whose only victory so far has come against Ireland in their last group fixture. However, with Sweden showing how quickly they tire in the second-half of games so far this tournament, the score was not expected to stay the same there. As it was, they were creating twice as many chances as Sweden: but then again, so had Ukraine.
The restart saw a swift change to proceedings: England upped the ante, had a changed dynamic and were looking sharp in possession. Whether it was a conscious decision on behalf of Roy Hodgson or England were purely quick to pounce on some slovenly play by Ukraine was yet to become clear. However, with just under a minute of the second half underway England had earned themselves a corner as a result of a poorly dealt with Ashley Cole free-kick.
Steven Gerrard took the corner, playing a deep and looping ball towards the penalty spot, which was headed clear by Rakitskiy; but it was not a header with great distance and Gerrard received the ball back on the wing, produced a step over, forced his way past his man and drove in a low and powerful cross, which took one deflection, then another, excaping the ‘keeper’s grasp, and found Wayne Rooney at the back post who nodded home into an unguarded net. England had taken the lead and looked dominant for a long while after.
Meanwhile, in the Sweden versus France encounter, Zlatan Ibrahimovic had superbly volleyed in a Seb Larsson cross to send the Swedes into an unexpected led, which meant England were now leading the group by three clear points. Despite their lead Sweden were 3rd, leaving Ukraine now in bottom, having topped the group after round one.
However, with just over an hour played, Ukraine looked to have leveled: Marko Devic received a through ball, in which seemed to be an offside position, pushed past his man, Terry, and saw his shot pass Joe Hart and look destined for the goal. Yet, an acrobatic and determined John Terry had tracked the ball’s path and hooked it off of the line and clear for England to break.
Ukraine were in celebration, but England were on the attack: within a minute of striking a shot goal bound, Devic’s side looked threatened. Scott Parker advanced down the left flank with the ball, but was heaved to the floor by Tymoschuck. The Bayern midfielder was booked and the cameras panned to a replay of Ukraine’s effort, which seemed to have crossed the line, but also showed Devic to be in an offside position. Congratulations UEFA and your 26 assistant community support officer referees.
Ukraine continued to dominate possession, but the best chances of the second half really were England’s. Ashley Cole came close to scoring his first international goal, but a quick reflex palm away from Pyatov kept the Ukrainian deficit at one. Ukraine, perhaps buoyed by the news that France were trailing, were looking for an equaliser.
Andriy Shevchenko came on for Devic with 70 minutes played and the atmosphere was raised by a tangible level: as he jogged his way on to the pitch, for probably the last time as a Ukrainian international, the cameras panned to the crowd and man, woman and child alike were afoot and in applause. One particular boy, no older than eight, was beaming from ear to ear, chanting his hero’s name. But, it was Konoplienka who nearly handed his nation a lifeline, with his thunderous effort to hot for Hart to handle and only prevented from being turned in from close range by a spirited Joleon Lescott, who reacted quickest to the loose ball.
Hodgson rang his three changes as the game progressed through it’s last stages, bringing on Walcott for Milner, Carroll for Welbeck and Chamberlain for Rooney, but neither were required to make the impact Walcott had done against Sweden. The score remained as it was, 1-0, and shortly before the referee blew a halt to proceedings, news filtered through that Larsson had doubled Sweden’s lead.
Now, England face Group C runners-up Italy on Sunday in the last quarter-final, whilst 4-point France will face World and European Champions Spain on Saturday.
So far so good for England, but will their compact and defensively focused approach come undone against sterner opposition. Sunday will have the answer.