When England take to the field in Kiev this evening to play Ukraine in their final group match at this years European Championships, the task ahead of them will be simple enough, mathematically, at least. A draw will be enough to take the team through to the quarter-finals of the competition, while a win may, depending on any margin of victory and what happens in this evenings other match between France and Sweden, be enough for them to win their group. Win the group and they would play Italy in the next round, finish second and they would play Spain. Lose and they will almost certainly be on the next flight home.
Yet on another level, things are far from being this simple, because England have so far largely failed to fulfil expectations at this summers European Championships. The team has already been involved in one of the more dramatic matches of the tournament so far when it was widely expected to bore everybody to tears, whilst the egos that those who despise this team love to hate so much have been broadly absent. Indeed, when Wayne Rooney was asked by a journalist whether he thought England could win the tournament the other day and answered in the affirmative, his response was taken by some as proof that the rampant egos so beloved and beloathed by so many had merely been varnished over with a gloss of faux-humility, as if there was any other answer that any other player in the tournament would have given to such a question.
Out there in the real world of practicalities and permutations, the scale of the task ahead of Roy Hodgsons team this evening is apparent. It was always overwhelmingly likely that England would go into their final group match needing a result to get through it. That is the nature of international tournament football. And since the draw for the finals was made, that final group match was always going to be a de facto away match against Ukraine. Qualification from this group remains tough, but at this juncture it at least feels achievable. Hodgsons team has performed, one suspects, just as the manager would have wanted them to, and if this evenings challenge is as much a psychological battle as it is a physical one, at least the team seems in something approaching the right frame of mind to take it on.
One question remains over tonights team selection, and it is one that has also been ling recognised as a known variable. We might describe it as The Rooney Conundrum. Suspended for the first two matches of the tournament, there was always going to be a huge question mark hanging over what to do with the Manchester United forward once his name was confirmed in the squad to travel. What has changed is that both of the players that he might have been expected to replace this evening, Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck, scored excellent goals against Sweden on Friday night and this made accommodating him a little more difficult than it might otherwise have been. Of course, the problem is a circular one. Should England fail to get the result they need this evening it is likely that a round of severe what-iffery will begin in earnest, but whilst hindsight may well have twenty-twenty vision, looking into a crystal ball is usually a considerably cloudier experience.
There is, however, an extra dimension to The Rooney Conundrum of which we are all already aware, and it is a question of temperament. How likely, we might well contemplate, is it that England will line up cautiously this evening, that Rooney will drop to a deeper and deeper position in frustration at not seeing enough of the ball, end up booting somebody up the backside and getting himself sent off? It would certainly fit a narrative that many would like to see, but Rooney, along with the rest of the squad, has painted a serene picture so far at this tournament. This state of affairs, however, may be subject to change but if Rooney can keep his temper on a leash (“channeling his aggression” is the familiar phrase for this), then the rewards could be great, and it is his undoubted talent that provides a temptation that the manager, perhaps understandably, finds difficult to resist.
Rooney, perhaps more than any other player in the England squad, has laboured under its attendant pressures over the last few years. Certainly if he can play with the care-free abandon with which he marked his tournament debut in Portugal eight years ago his selection might not carry the degree of risk that it feels as if it does this morning. Yet if ever there has been a summer for an England player to be care-free, then this is probably it. Despite the will of those that wish England supporters and players will return to stereotype, the upbeat mood and distinct lack of sacrificial lambs being prepared for slaughter so far have been a refreshing experience. We know that there are sections of the English press which are mad and may yet break rank, but they do not speak for all of us.
England have already managed to meet a minimum hope of sorts in not humiliating themselves in their first two matches of this tournament. They won’t be remembered as the worst team in this tournament and were involved in one dramatic – if accident-strewn – win, the memory of which may just stay with us for a while. There should be no clouding the fact that tonights match, against a co-host nation desperate to qualify for the next round of the competition and needing a win to do so, is an extremely difficult one – after all, England lost there on their only previous trip to play Ukraine in 2009 – but is the psychology of it all means anything, the team is in the right frame of mind going into it. There are no guarantees, and defeat this evening may well, for all the good vibrations hanging around the team today, see the hounds being released. Tonight, however, whether there is good luck, bad luck, a solid tactical plan or chaos on the pitch, a hero or a villain, England can only do what they can do and it feels as if that, for once, might just be enough to satisfy most people in its own right.
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