There was a point yesterday when it seemed as if history was deemed to repeat itself yet again. As Olof Mellbergs second goal-ward shot on goal made Joe Harts net swell for the second time in ten minutes, the feeling that England were deflating to expectation was inescapable. We had been here before, of course. In the cauldron of noise that was the Rasunda in Stockholm twenty years ago, Sweden came from behind to knock England out of the competition at the first hurdle. Ten years later, they were back, coming from behind to force a draw in their first match of the World Cup finals. And in 2006 another late Swedish equaliser denied England three points in their final group match in Cologne. England, as we have been told approximately nine times every day since the draw for these finals was made, hadn’t managed to beat Sweden in a competitive match since 1968. The stars were aligning against England yet again.
Somehow, though, this time England contrived somehow to pull an iron from the fire and conjured two goals – one a little lucky, one a tiny moment of improvised brilliance – to win the match and now go into their final group match against the co-hosts needing only a draw to progress to the quarter-finals of the competition. Qualification remains very much in the balance – they must get a result now from an away match in order to get through to the quarter-finals – but a sense of developing sense of self-belief is starting to settle over this England squad and while they surely won’t win the competition, they are far from embarrassing themselves and that, considering the chaotic nature surrounding the team of the last few months or so, is a start. Moreover, for all of their technical shortcomings – and these were manifest from both teams last night – the familiar criticism of England stinking tournament finals out with anti-football, which has had more than a ring of truth about it over since the 2006 World Cup finals feels a little less valid today.
For forty-five minutes in Kiev last night, though, it felt as if this was a match that had been scripted by the a professor from the Roy Hodgson School of Tournament Caution. England were solid against a limited Swedish team, sticking rigidly to their positions – it seemed almost unusual to see Steven Gerrard not drifting from his midfield position to wherever the hell he felt like – and, heaven forfend, occasionally going so far as to create some chances. As early as the seventh minute, Scott Parkers angled shot stung the palms of the Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson, while Sweden were limited to a couple of shots from distance, one of which was on target but troubled Joe Hart little more than a back-pass might have done. Midway through the half, they took the lead with a goal of sublime simplicity. Sweden failed to completely clear a tussle in the right-hand corner of the pitch. The ball arrived at the feet of Steven Gerrard, and Gerrard took one touch to steady himself before sending over a perfect cross to Andy Carroll, who shook off his marker and leapt, angling his head over the ball and powering a downward header wide of Isaksson and into the bottom corner of the goal. With a lead in the bag, England settled into a quiet period of containment and, although it already looked at times as if those two banks of four were dropping too deep, half-time arrived without Harts goal having been seriously threatened and the feeling manifest that this was a mission half-accomplished.
In the space of ten chaotic minutes at the start of the second half, however, the good work of the first forty-five minutes was completely undone with two pieces of defending so dreadful as to make the viewer wonder whether England had managed to persuade themselves that they didn’t need to defend set pieces any more. Four minutes in, a clumsy tackle by Andy Carroll gave Sweden a free-kick twenty-five yards from goal. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had spent much of the first half wandering the pitch as he felt that his mere presence upon it would be enough to summon a win for Sweden, shot into the wall, but in the ensuing meleé the ball squeezed through to Mellberg, whose shot was slowed but not stopped by Hart, and Glen Johnson on the goal-line could only thump the ball off the inside of the post and over the line. England, without much warning – other than our intuition – suddenly looked ragged and the turn-around was completed ten minutes later when a free-kick on the left-hand side from Sebastian Larsson found the much-vaunted English defence absent without leave again for Mellberg to head past Hart and give Sweden the lead. This was Stockholm 1992 all again. History was repeating itself.
Well, not quite. Not this time. Within a minute, a John Terry header from close range brought an excellent point blank save from Isaksson, and England kept the pressure on. While it may have felt like longer at the time, Swedens lead lasted for just five minutes before a corner from the left was only half-cleared and Theo Walcott, who had been on the pitch for just three minutes after having come on for James Milner, shot from twenty yards. It was lucky, of this can be no doubt. The ball took a slight deflection as it flew through the morass of bodies on the edge of the penalty area and flew past the wrong-footed and unsighted Isaksson to bring England level. With this goal, the game opened up in a way that few would have predicted and with twelve minutes left to play Walcott collected the ball on the right-hand side of the penalty area, jinked between two defenders and turned it back for Danny Welbeck who, with one touch, flicked the ball wide of Isaksson and into the corner of his net, a moment of sublime brilliance so unexpected as to be mistaken by many for a fluke. The slow motion replay showing Welbeck looking over his own shoulder to check the direction of his touch seemed to indicate otherwise, though.
The boot now was back on the other foot and Sweden now had to push forward in pursuit of a goal to prevent their own elimination from the tournament, but this goal wouldn’t come. For all of their pressure, they were unable to create a clear sight of the England goal and it was England themselves that looked the more likely to score in the closing minutes as Sweden committed more players forward, with Scott Parker shooting over and Theo Walcott crossing for Steven Gerrard, whose shot brought a superb save from Isaksson. This, however, was only enough to keep Sweden in the tournament for another couple of minutes, and with the full-time whistle they were out of the competition. England, meanwhile, now require a point from their final match against Ukraine to get through to the quarter-finals.
Furthermore, at the end of the match there was a pleasant surprise for those amongst us that have found our support for the England national team to have become compromised in recent years by the circus that surrounds it. Post-match interviews with Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Roy Hodgson revealed a respectful, modest and articulate group of people who were delighted with a job well done, and this is significant. Previous England teams in tournaments have played as if carrying the weight of the world upon their shoulders, stifling themselves on the pitch and appearing defensive away from it. This time around, though, they seem to be enjoying it and this was reflected last night in some expansive football and moments of glitter that we might not have expected before a ball was kicked. It’s difficult to get away from the idea that four points from two matches against France and Sweden would have been exactly what Hodgson was hoping for from these two matches and that is a significant achievement.
Everybody knew the limitations of this England side before the start of the tournament, and last nights match was definitely between two sides that were hardly from the top drawer of European football. In that respect, little has changed and England still have a real challenge to get out of this group, while getting through to the semi-finals remains only a slightly less distant prospect than it did a week or so ago. They have, however, carried themselves well and offered an air of positivity and modesty rather than the usual tetchiness and sense of entitlement of which they have been accused in the past. Considering everything that has happened over the last four months or so, this in itself is an achievement of sorts. There’s still plenty of room for hysteria to take grip again, but the baby steps taken by Roy Hodgson and England over the last few days have been a considerable surprise. Enjoy it while it lasts.
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