England 1 Ukraine 0: Lessons as Rooney’s strike books last-eight tie
What did we learn from England's 1-0 victory over co-hosts Ukraine, which sets up a quarter-final tie against Italy?
Rooney struggles despite striker’s winner
Wayne Rooney made his much hyped return to the England first-team, but the forward started quietly as his lack of playing time over the past month was evident. This was epitomised in the ninth minute, when Danny Welbeck guided a cut-back to his club team-mate, but Rooney failed to control the pass and Ukraine stole possession, launching a counter-attack. It set the theme for a disappointing opening half for England and Rooney, with the talismanic forward wasting a glorious opportunity in the 27th minute. John Terry’s sweeping pass out to Ashley Young, who cut onto his favoured right foot and delivered a dangerous cross into Andriy Pyatov’s box – Rooney was unmarked and six-yards out – but glanced his header wide. It was the first time England were unable to guide a single effort on target in the first half of a major tournament since Glenn Hoddle’s side were left frustrated by Romania at the interval in the 1998 World Cup. But Rooney, England’s leading goal scorer since making his debut in 2004, scored his first strike at a major tournament in over 653 minutes, making amends for his earlier miss by nodding Steven Gerrard’s cross past Pyatov in the 48th minute. He did little else to affect the second half, but the striker will have gained vital match sharpness ahead of a testing quarter-final against Italy on Sunday.
Ukraine rue wayward finishing
Ukraine needed a victory to ensure their passage into the last eight, and Oleh Blokhin’s side seized the early initiative. It started when Denys Garmash tried a shot from distance which narrowly fizzed over Hart’s crossbar. Hodgson’s side were unable to keep hold of the ball as Ukraine boasted 68 per cent of possession in the opening 10 minutes, and England endured another anxious moment as Yevhen Selin seared past Ashley Cole and fired a low cross into the Hart’s area – a last-ditch Scott Parker block denied Marko Devic. Ukraine’s movement up front was sharp, and with England in disarray, Yevhen Konoplyanka goal bound effort was halted by John Terry’s chest. Perhaps the most alarming moment of a ropey first half came when Andriy Yarmolenko jinked past Parker and Terry, before Joleon Lescott came to the rescue and pinched the ball of the midfielder’s toe. Fortunately for the Three Lions, Ukraine had the worst shot accuracy at Euro 2012, managing to guide just 12 per cent of their efforts on target. After the interval, the co-hosts continued to probe England’s wobbling rearguard, and in the 63rd minute, there big moment came. Chelsea’s Terry horribly misread a lofted pass and Devic bore down on Hart’s goal – the Manchester City goalkeeper managed to take the pace off the striker’s effort but it still appeared destined for the net. However, Terry had continued to chase back and hooked the ball clear – replays confirmed the shot had crossed the line – but the fifth official failed to award the goal. England survived – no doubt pointing to their misfortune at the 2010 World Cup as justification for the official’s error – but for Ukraine, it was a cruel way to end the tournament.
Young continues to toil on the left
Ashley Young was England’s form player heading into Euro 2012 but the United winger has struggled to make an impression, particularly in the final two Group D ties. In the warm-up games the 26-year-old took his tally to four goals in five England appearances, and it earned him a starting place against France in his favoured role behind the main striker. But Young produced a muted display, and since Hodgson moved the former Watford youth graduate out to the left of a 4-4-2 system, he has been anonymous. It is a system which doesn’t suit the attacker, and when Sir Alex Ferguson deployed Young in a similar role last season, his impressive start at Old Trafford soon died out. Young thrived on the left of a front three at Aston Villa, with Gabby Agbonlahor and Stewart Downing completing a dangerous attacking line-up. So unless Hodgson is willing to alter a winning formula to accommodate Young, the England manager would be best served handing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are starting berth.
Gerrard excels in midfield role
Gerrard has been England’s standout performer at the European championship so far, shining in the absence of Rooney – and he was instrumental in helping Hodgson’s side reach the last eight. The 32-year-old struggled for Liverpool last season, with his buccaneering displays from midfield becoming more of a rarity. Unsurprisingly, doubts lingered over Gerrard’s form heading into Euro 2012, and his ability to cope with a demanding fixture schedule. But, in typical fashion, Gerrard has been key in helping an unfancied England side reach the last eight. In the 1-1 draw with France, he put in a disciplined shift to limit the impact of Les Bleus’ dangerous attack, and he produced a sublime first-half free-kick which Lescott headed emphatically past Hugo Lloris. The England skipper manufactured another tantalising cross for Liverpool team-mate Andy Carroll to guide past Andreas Isaksson in their exhilarating 3-2 victory over Sweden. Gerrard even managed to launch one of his trademark bursts from midfield in added time, only to be denied his first goal of the tournament by an instinctive save by the Swedish goalkeeper. His performance against Ukraine was reflective of his campaign so far – England’s best passer of the ball, and when he did lose possession, inevitably winning it back with a biting challenge. And it was Gerrard’s neat footwork and wicked low cross which led to Rooney’s winner. Hodgson will hope his skipper’s sudden renaissance will continue when he faces Italy’s midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo next Sunday.
How far can England go?
After all the negativity surrounding England’s chances at Euro 2012, Hodgson’s men navigated the group phase unbeaten – for just the second time at a European championship – and now face a winnable tie against Cesare Prandelli’s Italy. Match-fixing scandals overshadowed Italy’s preparations for the tournament, but they have also thrived despite their prospects being downplayed – akin to England. For the Three Lions, there is a real opportunity to make the last four of a major tournament for the first time since 1996. The Azzurri possess plenty of experience, and flawed genius, but have struggled to find the net with any frequency. And with England slowly improving in defence, there is a real chance for Hodgson’s side to progress. Italy’s wing-backs will be one cause for concern, and expect the England manager to persevere with James Milner and Young in the wide positions. Otherwise, it is a relatively even match-up between two sides who like to contain and counter, with Gerrard and Pirlo set to be a key battle in midfield, and Rooney’s ability to upset an Italian defence crucial. Quiet optimism will flood England ahead of the quarter-final, and perhaps for the first time at Euro 2012, it is now accurate to say that the nation expects.