England 1 Ukraine 0 Eur0 2012 Match Report
“Take care of Wayne Rooney,” was Sven Goran Eriksson's last piece of advice as England manager before he headed off on a journey that would eventually lead to the giddy football heights of Notts County. Up until now in Euro 2012, England had not had a choice about it as Wayne's wallop against Montenegro meant he had been forcibly removed from the action. But now with his two game ban served (comically reduced from three because he didn't argue about being sent off for gratuitously kicking an opponent) Rooney was ready to be unleashed on the tournament. Thoughts drifted back to his first European Championship when his bullish attacking threatened to sweep England to success only for an unfortunate injury to take him out and England's hopes with him. Rooney never completely recaptured the swaggering menace of those early powerhouse displays but he remains unquestionably England's most important player.
Whether he's England's most astute interviewee is less sure. In the run up to this game Wayne finally said what everybody in the entire camp had been desperately avoiding saying, England could win the tournament! I suppose waking up and looking at his new haircut had made him believe anything is possible. Nevertheless it was probably unwise. England had been second best against France and a mess for the start of the second half against Sweden. They hadn't exactly laid down a marker in the manner of Germany. But the words were out and they couldn't be swallowed. True the team had overall been organised, disciplined and resolute. They had showed unsuspected character to fight back after the Swede's turned the game around in Kiev. But win the tournament? They still seemed too predictable and lacking in creativity. And it was not yet even certain they would get out of the group. The result against Sweden had given them a slight advantage over Ukraine but they still had to face the home nation in front of a fiercely partisan crowd. Watching England emerge I felt they would just about squeak through but it wouldn't be easy. This was the first tiny optimistic thought I've had about the team. Being an England watcher of many years I knew what optimism leads to and immediately regretted it.
From the kick off it was apparent that if England were going to win the tournament they were going to defend their way to success. Frustratingly, the first ten minutes saw them completely cede the initiative to the home side. Hodgson’s unadventurous two lines of four were very much in evidence. Approaching the game with the idea of taking as little risk as possible was of course defensible with England only requiring a draw to qualify. But it allowed the Ukraine to come forward and they didn’t need to be asked twice showing a willingness to combine shooting from distance with some more intricate passing to get them closer to goal. Some of these shots went very wide and some of them were a little closer. None really troubled Joe Hart but it gave the crowd something to latch onto. For what was obviously a risk-free approach that was a risk.
However, as the half wore on England established some kind of rhythm. Ashley Young showed flashes of talent on the left wing finally producing the clearest chance of the half with an excellent centre for the unmarked Rooney. Sadly, he mis-timed his leap so was unable to generate any power and the ball skidded harmlessly off his new haircut which is incidentally making him look increasingly like an early 90s Paul Gascgoine – I’m not the only one who thinks it.
Ukraine were in no way cowed by the English improvement testing the higher rated team with fast wide balls out to the wings one moment and passing and dribbling through the middle the next. England were no doubt relieved Shevchenko was sitting on the bench as he has or least had the class to take produce the finishing touches to some excellent approach work.
As the half-time whistle blew it felt as though England should just hold out but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Straight after the re-start it got a lot easier. From an unsuccessful corner the ball came back to Gerrard who beat his marker comprehensively before curling in a dangerous cross. The ball took a couple of tiny yet significant deflections from Ukranian defenders on the way which took it past their despairing keeper and bounced up invitingly for Rooney – it needed only the tiniest of touches to be knocked in in. Rooney duly added the nod and England were 1-0 up and on the way to the last eight.
In front of their home crowd Ukraine rallied forcing a couple of corners and firing in a couple of long range shots which swerved and dipped on their way and forced impressive saves from Joe Hart.
Minutes later they broke out of defence with a long ball. Good control and a short pass later and a Ukranian attacker was bearing down on the England goal. Hart managed to partially block the resulting shot but the ball was unable to stop the ball looping agonizingly into the net. Not even the desperate hooked beyond-the-goal-line clearance of John Terry could save it. Amazingly, however, the appalling judgement of the penalty area official could. Despite having a perfect view he waved the Ukraine’s justified claims away and England kept their lead.
That was the last key moment. Ukraine threw on Shevchenko for one last hurrah but it proved a sentimental rather than an inspired substitution. England, for once, played out a game in relative comfort – even the news that Sweden were beating France didn’t rouse the Ukraine to meaningfully threaten the England goal in the last ten minutes. They had given it a go and they were shot.
But England were far from shot. Top of the group they avoided Spain in the next round. And with every game they are getting ever so slightly better. The question is almost too dangerous to ask but ask it I shall - could Wayne Rooney be right after all?
You get that I’m not talking about the hair transplant, right?