EURO 2012: England Ride Luck to Beat Ukraine 1-0 and Top Group D
While words whip around about how low expectations must still be, how underperformances can be forgiven and how important banks of four are Roy Hodgson must be praised for cajoling his England side to the quarter finals of EURO 2012.
Stepping into competitive international football without too much time with his squad Hodgson has overseen a draw against France and two victories: one over Sweden; one over Ukraine. They have topped the group and have done so playing an almost unique brand of pared down football. They now face Italy in the quarter finals.
Everything could have been so different.
The chat on British TV was that of how average Ukraine were and how expectations had progressed from the nervy baptism of the opening game. Yet in the first half England saw very little of the ball and sat deep, inviting Ukrainian pressure.
Misplaced shots lashed passed defenders, but England repelled. Steven Gerrard linked nicely with wide men, but there was no penetration. Wayne Rooney looked as if his touch had deserted him. The only real chances came from a Gerrard cross that goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov limply palmed away, and a point blank header Rooney nodded wide.
In the second half, though, action was taken. Barely minutes after the starting whistle another Gerrard cross was blasted in and as Pyotov fumbled again Rooney popped up at the back post to flinch the ball into the goal. He wheeled away with a grin on his face. He knew he had been rusty, but he cared little.
England again sat in. Their banks had done well to shield all that came directly at goal and while Gerrard dumped passes Scott Parker was patrolling, blocking all he could and throwing himself at the feet of prospective attackers.
Of course England were playing to strengths and venturing when needs must so to play the hosts –who were noisily backed by the crowd and aware that their future hinged on this result –they would need luck. They got it.
Although a pass from deep found Artem Milevskiy dropping back from an offside position the flag stayed down and play continued. He hit Marko Devic who stuttered, shifting the centre-back, and as his shot bounced from Joe Hart’s hand it looped towards the net. John Terry did his best to clear it, but the ball passed over the line. The referee’s assistant refused to flag or communicate with the match official and play went on despite protests. England had been lucky.
In the end not even talismanic striker Andriy Shevchenko could not come in to affect the match. The game fizzled out as England clutched onto the scoreline.
After celebrating there was time for England to reflect. They are set to face a defensive power in Italy and if they are to progress they must up their game in an offensive sense. Of course they must still be commended for topping expectations. Who knows, if they shut out enough and counter and use clever set plays they can upset the odds. After all, Greece did it in 2004.