Even England have entered into the spirit of Euro 2012 now. Even the England of Roy Hodgson, who parked their bus in front of France’s creators on Monday, earning a tie and a considerable amount of credit back home, where realism has replaced the customary euphoria.
Opening out against less feared Sweden proved the hazardous part, for England’s old adversaries, whom they seldom beat, proved radically more impressive than in their opening defeat by Ukraine. It made for a game characteristic of England’s ultra-entertaining Premier League, advantage swinging from side to side until Danny Welbeck claimed victory with a brilliant piece of improvised finishing a quarter of an hour from the end.
For Hodgson, though some of his team’s defending left much to be desired, it was something of a personal triumph in that his team’s first goal came from a header by Andy Carroll, whose inclusion to probe the Swedish defence’s perceived weakness in the air had been his only change from the France game; that the second was scored by a newly arrived substitute, Theo Walcott, who then laid on Welbeck’s superb winner.
But it was far from the solid, watertight performance the coach likes to see. England went in at half-time leading through Carroll’s thumping header, one of the tournament’s best so far in that it rivalled Robert Lewandowski’s for Poland in the opening game against Greece, but emerged lacking in concentration.
An own-goal was logged against Glen Johnson when Sweden equalised, but it was the failure to catch Olof Mellberg offside that Hodgson would blame. And when Mellberg headed a free-kick past goalkeeper Joe Hart nine minutes later the whole defense again looked culpable. But it was a night where the positives just about outweighed the problems Hodgson will have to resolve on the training field before England reach the level required to challenge for the title at stake in Poland and Ukraine.
In order to reach the quarter-finals, in which Hodgson’s men could face champions Spain or Croatia, England must avoid defeat in its concluding group game against joint hosts Ukraine in Donetsk. That looks more than possible in the light of Ukraine’s storm-delayed defeat by the French on the same field; the suspicion must be that Ukraine and their ageing figurehead, the great Andriy Shevchenko, delivered their one big performance in opening with victory over Sweden.
On top of that, England has its most highly-rated player available again, for the watching Wayne Rooney completed his two-match suspension and will be eager to play some part in qualification for the knockout stage.
So England must be favored to march on with France. At least, in Kiev, they put paid to the theory that they might be one-dimensional under Hodgson: an unyielding rearguard with little facility for adventure. In truth they attacked – or counter-attacked, for Sweden tended to force the pace – with speed and enterprise, both John Terry and his successor as captain, Steven Gerrard, bringing wondrous saves from Andreas Isaksson.
So now, with four points under their belts, it is back to headquarters in Krakow, Poland, for Hodgson and his players. There is much food for thought. The options in attack are richer than some may have realised in the approach to the tournament. Not only is Carroll a formidable force, but the 21-year-old Welbeck is developing into a striker of true class, as a wonderfully delicate flick past Isaksson with his trailing heel emphasised.
More work on the defence is undoubtedly required, with the places of Johnson and even Terry in question, but that is meat and drink to Hodgson – even if he spent most of this occasion chewing on his fingernails.