Grounded approach ideal for England
Wayne Rooney will never score an easier goal as long as he lives. Ukraine will never concede a more embarrassing one. Steven Gerrard’s cross squeezed past two defenders and the goalkeeper before arriving in front of Rooney’s head a matter of inches from an unguarded line. From the moment he nodded it in, the majority of the Donetsk crowd accepted that their compatriots were fighting a losing battle and the English were in the quarterfinals.
"No one believed in us at the start but we're gaining momentum at the right time," Gerrard said after the match. "I don't think tonight's performance was fantastic, but we stuck together, got the job done and won 1-0 against a good team.”
Coach Roy Hodgson, increasing in authority by the game, and his men now meet Italy because France, hitherto the group favorite, was concurrently beaten 2-0 by Sweden, giving England top place in Group D. Had England finished second, it would have faced the European Champion and World Cup holder, Spain, and this is definitely the lesser of two evils.
Italy is beatable, very beatable if England maintains the speed in attack which has been a feature of its campaign so far, which was increased by the return of Rooney alongside his Manchester United teammates Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck.
"He's got character, hasn't he?" Hodgson said of Rooney. "Those who have followed England and Manchester United, even Everton, you know what Rooney is, what he can do and his qualities.
"He showed them in abundance tonight. He and (Danny) Welbeck worked extremely hard."
Welbeck is England’s find of the tournament so far. Only 21, he was not expected to be a major player this summer but has been sharp, intelligent and – in scoring the winner against Sweden in the previous game – outrageously gifted. His pace and mobility will be a nightmare for the Italian defense. With Rooney lurking behind, the English should have enough ammunition to beat the Italians.
A path to the final is opening up for them partly because Hodgson took over from Fabio Capello so late in preparations that expectations were at an all-time low. Could now be England’s time to reach a first final? Soccer has produced many stranger scenarios than that.
"This is a fledgling team as far as I'm concerned," Hodgson told ITV1. "But we're working at our game and showing composure on the ball and in attacking areas is always the most difficult part.”
As for Ukraine, who completed an unfortunate double by following fellow cohost Poland out of the tournament at the group stage, it will be wishing goal-line technology had come a year earlier than its expected introduction in 2013. But even if a linesman’s naked eye had judged that the ball John Terry hooked away in the second half had crossed the line it would have made no difference without a second Ukrainian goal. Ukraine had to win. A tie would have been good enough for England to get through even if France had won or drawn.
The English have quickly adopted the style laid down by Hodgson and a record – in friendlies and the three games in Ukraine so far – that suggests that it’s working. Ukraine had an encouraging first half of imaginative passing and had made seven openings before England had one. Nonetheless, the home team kept being frustrated, as France had been, by Hodgson’s deep defense, in which Terry again had a diligent partner in Joleon Lescott.
England must keep improving to have a reasonable chance of winning its first title since the 1966 World Cup on home soil. A friendly win over Spain last year was at Wembley and defied the stats (as soccer often does, admittedly). But an impetus is building and the lethargic manifest during the World Cup under Capello two years ago is conspicuous by its absence. Hodgson can also be relied upon to keep his players’ feet on the ground: an important factor, given the hysteria that sometimes creeps into the English psyche.
"Most people didn't think we'd get out of the group," Hodgson said. "We've won it on points instead of goal difference as well. This was an away game with a capital `A.'
"There were (50,000) people in and only 4,000 brave England fans. When we needed a bit of luck, when the ball may have crossed the line, we got a bit of luck and went on to win the match."
Rooney is back and the train is still on the rails. So far, so good for England fans.