Sixteen years ago at half-time of the England’s second Euro’96 group game against Scotland, then BBC pundit Jimmy Hill laid into Paul Gascoigne with the relish of as starved lion feasting on his prey; the tendency of scapegoating the nation’s most talented player existed before Gascoigne, as Glenn Hoddle experienced throughout the eighties, and is one that continues now, as a half-time glance at Twitter during Tuesday night game against the Ukraine showed. Gascoigne spectacularly proved his critics wrong within minutes at Wembley, while Wayne Rooney more routinely also justified his place with a well-timed run to get the only goal in England’s 1-0 win against this year’s co-hosts.
Some suggested Rooney shouldn’t be included in the squad because of his two-match suspension, others said he should start on the bench on Tuesday, and after a goalless first-half, in which he missed the best chance of the game, some were calling for him to be substituted at the break. Rooney is of course vital to this England side, a unit that lacks creativity and guile and has less match-winners than past England squads. Both to improve his match-sharpness, and improve England’s pattern of play, it was common sense Rooney started against Ukraine, with the ambition for the team to progress as far as possible.
Rooney’s goal came from another excellent cross from the right by Steven Gerrard, his third assist in three games with a manner that suggested Steve McLaren had a point when he wanted him to be a replacement for David Beckham on that flank. Gerrard has had slightly more freedom with Scott Parker in the team than he had before, but with two banks of four, rather than a 4-2-3-1, the wide players are still pushed back, and as a result England still too often play in straight lines. Ukraine looked the better side for much of the first half because of that, although an excellent ball by Ashley Young should have been converted by Rooney. Ukraine were unlucky in the second-half, when after John Terry was skinned, his late clearance that didn’t prevent the ball crossing the line, still prevented a goal due to FIFA’s incompetence.
But England have been due some luck in a major tournament. Whether this England side is capable of fully cashing in on it remains to be seen.
England’s next opponents Italy looked comfortable against a very ordinary Republic of Ireland side that seemingly had little ambition, judging by their Manager’s approach, and has been the weakest team in the tournament. They weren’t the only side to go out with three defeats though, as the Dutch left Portugal wide-open spaces to pillage them. Coupled with poor play in possession, they made it easy for Portugal, for whom Ronaldo got off the mark with two-goals that could have been many more, as they came from behind to win 2-1. Holland took the lead with a wonderful left-footed strike from Rafa van der Vaart, and he was unlucky not to equalizer when he hit the post with a similarly beautiful right-foot effort late on, but apart from him, none of the other big name Dutch players were in the game. Had Van der Vaart started the first two games, perhaps they wouldn’t be going home pointless.
Portugal will go on to face the surprise Group A winners, the Czech Republic, who overcame Russia. The Russians, like co-hosts Poland, seemed to freeze on their third game. Despite a late Russian onslaught the Czechs held on, while the Greeks were also resolute in defending their one-goal lead to upset Poland. Both Germany and Portugal are now strong favourites to win the first two quarter-finals.
Germany were tested by Denmark, who could have had a penalty in the second-half when the scores were level, but like the other favourites, Spain, they won a tight final group game when elimination was on a knife edge.
Spain, similar to their World Cup win against Paraguay, beat Croatia 1-0 though were close to going out. Croatia looked dangerous on the break, with Luke Modric raising his game on the international stage, and players like Verdan Corluka producing extra effort that putting on their national shirt seems to inspire. Croatia, like Denmark, could have had a penalty when Corluka was mauled by Busquets when he was close to scoring, but once again the officials failed in this tournament. They had guilt-edged chances as well, but failed to take them and Spain survived. For all their possession Spain looked vulnerable, but passing and movement was enough to create the one chance that mattered, and Jesus Navas literally walked the ball in the net.
They will be big favourites to progress against France whose long unbeaten run came to an end after a stunning goal by Zlatan Ibrahimovic changed the dynamics of the game. Though already out Sweden played with plenty of heart, and the French, who failed to convert chances when the game was goalless, left holes at the back as they laboured to get back into the game. The second Swedish goal was well-deserved, and though the French have an excellent Manager, their players look to be lacking in what is required.
If England beat Italy they will face opponents who will have had two more days rest than them in the semi-final, most likely the Germans. And then the luck England have had, and which has been a factor in many of six 1-0 wins including against Spain and Belgium this season, will be an attribute needed as much as Rooney’s ability to turn a match.
Trevor Brooking admitted yesterday he would have been delighted with qualification from the group just a month ago, and the win against Ukraine was leading Sky News on Tuesday night, reflecting the positive mood the success of the national side brings. A couple more wins and the players could come back heroes. A bad defeat on Sunday though, and a few of the players may be more wary of the headline news on Radio 4 this morning, as the nation finally has had enough of the rich avoiding tax.
The Substantive Football Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview and download from Amazon and Smashwords. With past recollections of matches including Clasicos, Milan Derbies and Diego Maradona’s one appearance at White Hart Lane, it covers a journey over land and sea in the 2010-11 Champions League. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.