Rooney delivers on cue as Hodgson comes up trumps
GROUP D: UKRAINE 0 ENGLAND 1:IN THE end, England qualified with something to spare and their prize for finishing top of Group D is a significant one. Roy Hodgson’s team will be glad to avoid Spain in the quarter-finals and, though Italy represent challenging opponents in their own right, the benefits of skipping a date with the world champions are plain.
Instead, the reward for Wayne Rooney’s decisive contribution, early in the second half, is to face more moderate opposition in Kiev on Sunday, with a possible semi-final against Germany to follow.
Rooney will cherish his goal, coming on his return from suspension, and England will return to Ukraine at the weekend with the confidence that comes from four wins out of their five games in the Hodgson era.
Yet it told only part of the story on a night when their opponents followed Poland, their co-hosts, in being eliminated. They were left harbouring serious grievances about the moment, after 62 minutes, when Marko Devic’s shot flicked off Joe Hart and was clearly over the goal-line by the time John Terry hooked the ball away from under the crossbar.
Even with a goal-line assistant, the officials waved play on and England were spared the ordeal of a late onslaught.
Ukraine had the backing of a raucous, excitable crowd and there was great volume in those moments when there was any vulnerability in England’s defence.
For England, part of the battle was to quell that enthusiasm. It needed composure and assurance. More than anything, it required a force of personality that comes from having played in loud, frenzied stadiums enough times not to be fazed.
Everything would certainly have been considerably easier if Rooney had not tempted onlookers to believe inside the opening half that this might be one of those nights that could be added to his portfolio of England disappointments.
His first chance came after 28 minutes and it was a horrible miss, from the first telling cross Ashley Young has delivered in this tournament. The header flashed wide as Rooney seemed to lack confidence attacking the ball. Unmarked and six yards out, it was the sort of chance he would have taken as a matter of routine for Manchester United last season.
A goal at that stage would have soothed England’s nerves because until that point Ukraine had looked the more dangerous team, breaking from midfield and moving the ball quickly.
England’s attacks were more sporadic and they were fortunate at times that the Ukrainian finishing was not of a higher quality.
Oleh Blokhin’s team played with great endeavour during that opening half but Andriy Shevchenko’s knee issue meant he was unable to start and England, though often pinned back, restricted their opponents to only half-chances during that first half.
There were occasional moments of carelessness, such as when Young allowed the ball to bounce over him and Andriy Yarmolenko suddenly had a sight of goal. England were fortunate, too, that the same player did not have a better first touch after Denys Garmash had slipped him in between John Terry and Joleon Lescott inside the opening 10 minutes.
Yet Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker formed an effective shield in front of the England defence. Joe Hart was a confident, reassuring presence in goal and it was difficult for the Ukrainians to find a way through all the congestion.
The problem for England was they did not always hold up the ball particularly well whenever it came to their front players when, with a touch more care, this could have relieved some of the early pressure. Rooney was working hard but his touch was unusually heavy and it was tempting to wonder whether the weight of expectancy and his suspension had blunted his effectiveness.
Young’s delivery for the Rooney chance was the team’s outstanding moment in the first half but there was not a great deal otherwise.
The goal owed a great deal to the poor goalkeeping of Andriy Pyatov, who was deceived by a slight near-post touch and allowed Gerrard’s cross to squirm through his legs. Once again, though, it was another sumptuous delivery from Gerrard, who is making a habit of setting up goals with his range of crossing from the right.
On this occasion he preceded it by deceiving his nearest opponent, Yevhen Konoplyanka, to create the space. It was brilliant play and Rooney showed good anticipation to capitalise on Pyatov’s mistake and head the ball into an open net.
Gerrard showed even greater expertise shortly afterwards when he intercepted a Ukraine corner and then sent Rooney running clear from inside his own half, only for the striker to be caught by the Ukrainian defenders.
Yet there were anxious moments to come. Artem Milevskiy had let them off with an unmarked header shortly before the night’s controversy. In fairness, it was not clear that the whole ball was over the line until the slow-motion replays but it still reflects badly on the officiating that the referee and his two assistants, one only a few yards away, got it wrong.
England made the most of their luck and Sweden’s defeat of France made the evening’s efforts seem even more worthwhile.