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.