The phrase “you make your own luck” is an overused one and it is perfectly possible to argue that luck, by its very nature, is random. There can be little doubt, however, that England rode theirs in Donetsk last night, scrambling their way to a single goal win which confirmed a slightly unlikely looking top place in their group with a little room to spare. Yet to glance at the final group table only partially tells the story of last nights match against Ukraine. This was a match from which England were highly fortunate to emerge with all three points. Overrun in midfield, the heart leapt to the mouth every time the co-hosts broke away, and this they frequently did with pace and no little verve. Yet all too often they ran dry on ideas when they came within sight of the England goal but despite this still created chances, including one which saw the ball cross the goal-line by several inches.
Counter-attacking was the key to coach Oleg Blokhins plans to pick a way through an English defence that was set up with the minimum requirement of protecting the point that they needed to scrape through to the quarter-finals of the competition in mind. Every time they did so, they showed Englands lack of pace and control of the game in the middle third of the pitch up for what it was. The crowd reacted to each break with increasing frenzy, a unified cry that rang like an alarm around the Donbass Arena, but in the first half there was little for the supporters of either team too cheer too loudly about. The clearest single chance of the half, indeed, to England, a cross from the left that found Wayne Rooney unmarked and six yards out. His sloppy header, however, missed its target and Ukraine breathed a sigh of relief.
Three minutes into the second half, England broke the deadlock with a goal that had more than an element of chance about it. Steven Gerrard, who has probably been Englands most accomplished player of their last three games, collected the ball on the right hand side and managed to squeeze between two defenders. His low cross was deflected twice en route across the Ukraine goal, but goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov misjudged it, got only a fingertip on it, and Rooney nodded the ball over the line from barely a yard out. It was a fittingly scrappy goal for the occasion.
If England supporters had thought that this ideal start to the second half was a precursor to forty-five minutes of football that wouldn’t leave the heart resting somewhere near the too of the throat, however, they were mistaken and after sixty-two minutes came the moment upon which the result would come to stand when the ball was threaded through to Marko Devic. His low shot was slowed but not stopped by Joe Hart, but John Terry managed to recover to scoop the ball off the goal line. It was clear from the first replay that the ball had crossed the line by several inches, but Ukrainian protests fell upon deaf ears. No goal was awarded. In the closing stages, there were chances at both ends of the pitch. Ashley Cole broke for England but saw Pyatov smartly palm the ball away.
At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, Hart pulled off a save that looked better and better upon each repeat viewing from a rasping, swerving shot from Yevhen Konoplyanka. In desperation, Blokhin introduced Andriy Shevchenko, who had initially been ruled out of the game with a knee injury, his his influence was limited and the two goal deficit that the co-hosts needed to make up in order to squeeze through themselves proved to be too much to make up and at full-time the second co-hosts, who had started their tournament so encouragingly in beating Sweden in their opening match, were out.
Meanwhile, in Kiev, France continued to baffle. Stifled by England in their opening match, they had found something approaching the imperious football that we might have expected of them in comprehensively beating Ukraine in their second match, but against a Sweden side that had been a little unfortunate to find itself dumped out of the competition after two narrow defeats they ran into an obstacle seemingly fuelled by professional pride. This was a Swedish performance semingly borne of a desire not to exit the tournament without having taken something from it, and their performance this evening should at least boost their confidence ahead of the forthcoming World Cup qualifying campaign.
France were beaten by two goals, the first a quite magnificent bicycle kick from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the second a stoppage time rebound from Sebastion Larsson, but the cost of restoring Swedens dignity has come at a heavy price for France. They needed to match Englands result in order to win the group, and failure to do so means that they now face the daunting prospect of a quarter-final match against Spain at the weekend. Last nights was a performance that they will need to significantly improve upon if they are to progress any further in this competition. If there is one thing that their last three matches has demonstrated, however, it is that predicting what France will do next can be a tricky thing to do.
Ukraine, meanwhile, become the fourth host nation to fall from the European Championship finals at the group stage in the last two tournaments. Spirited against Sweden and England, they stumbled on their limp performance against France last week, a match that ended in a two goal defeat but might have been even worse for them. It was this defeat which left them needing a win against England last night, and no matter how unfortunate they were with the shot that bounced over the line – and they were – they had put themselves in the position of needing to chase the win and in addition to this it had been some unsatisactory defending which had given England the slim buffer of a one goal lead.
We will never know whether, had the goal been correctly given after sixty-two minutes (and claims that an offside call was missed against Artem Milevskiy in the build-up to this are immaterial – under the laws of the game, these two matters are unrelated), Ukraine would have been able to muster a second goal, knock England out of the competition and progress to the quarter-finals themselves. England themselves, meanwhile, rode their luck and struck when they were gifted their chance. It is important keep a sense of perspective about this team. Its limitations were again on display in Donetsk last night, but this is a team that is playing to its strengths and deserves its place in the quarter-finals of the competition.
What does elevate Englands group performance above the ordinary this year is the trying circumstances under which it has been achieved. It is worth bearing in mind that last nights match was only Roy Hodgsons fifth in charge of the team – and four wins and a draw is a decent return from five matches regardless of any other considerations – and, perhaps even more interestingly than this, he has only been in this position for a handful of weeks. In this remarkably short period of time, he has got the team playing to a system that has got it results – it is worth pointing that only Spain have have scored more than the five goals that a clutch of teams in cluding England scored during the group stages – whilst instilling a positive attitude within the squad itself which has been reflected in a less antagonistic relationship with the teams support.
If there were signs of hysteria starting to build ahead of last nights match, perhaps some of this will have dissipated with a performance that had little of the excitement of last Friday nights match, and Englands quarter-final match against Italy on Sunday looks like an extremely difficult match, at least as tough as their opening game against France was. As such, thes best that be taken from last night is that at least the match and group were won, and what was generally agreed to be the minimum achievement for an England team at a major tournament – the question of whether this is right or not is, of course, another matter altogether – having been achieved. Nervy though it was, this is something that should not be understated. Anything from now on may be considered a bonus.
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