England edge closer to Rio without ever looking impressive
Better team than the visitors would surely have exposed Ukraine’s limitations
Steven Gerrard of England competes for the ball with Edmar and Taras Stepanenko of Ukraine during the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.
A draw, Roy Hodgson will inevitably say, represents a satisfying night and, in one way at least, he would be justified.
England remain top of Group H, a point ahead of Ukraine and Montenegro, and the simple mathematics now is that if they win their final two games they guarantee a place at the World Cup next summer without the ordeal of having to go through the playoffs.
The problem for England is that this result means they still have not beaten any of their opponents bar Moldova and San Marino, two of football’s most notorious punchbags, so it is giving Hodgson’s team the benefit of the doubt, to say the least, to expect that victory over Montenegro and Poland at Wembley next month is a formality.
England may have managed to nullify Ukraine, but the lack of imagination or creativity on show should temper any premature sense of celebration.
Hodgson’s men played with all the resilience and structure that is always associated with his team. What they failed to do was create a single clear-cut opportunity and in the process they were just grateful for two things.
First, that Ukraine did not take theirs and, secondly, that the occasion did not turn into another personal ordeal for Joe Hart. Another night, another referee, it could easily have gone that way.
The evening could certainly have taken a different complexion if Pedro Proenca had not been so lenient when Joe Hart left his goal-line, in a straight race for the ball with Roman Zozulya, and brought him down before there was even a minute on the clock.
Hart could be seen bellowing at his opponent to get off the floor, desperately trying to create the impression it was a dive.
He had actually clattered into Zozulya. It could easily have been a penalty, with half the England side yet to touch the ball. What a difference it could have made to the night and what an important moment it might be, ultimately, when it comes to deciding which team qualifies automatically as the group winners.
England were subjected to some intense pressure during that opening period and there were times when they were just glad their opponents were not more accurate in front of goal.
Zozulya missed with a free header, as did Artem Fedetskiy from an even more inviting position. The crowd were impassioned, brandishing thousands of yellow and blue coloured cards, and the volume went up every time Mykhailo Fomenko’s team pressed forward.
Hodgson had identified Ukraine’s habit of starting matches with great vigour and energy, attacking in numbers and pressing the ball high up the pitch. This was precisely how it went and England had to play with great togetherness to get through this period.
Hodgson likes to call this system 4-3-3, but for long spells it morphed into 4-5-1, with James Milner and Theo Walcott tucking in from the wide positions to congest the midfield.
The secret with this formation is not to leave the lone striker too isolated when there are actually chances to break and, to give them their due, England did this pretty well in the first half.
Walcott eluded his marker for one early chance and Steven Gerrard, playing as the deepest-lying midfielder, let fly with another effort from 25 yards.
Gerrard had curled another shot on to the top of Andriy Pyatov before half-time and, at that point, Ukraine were starting to look a little bit subdued, struggling to get their dangerous wide players prominently into the game.
At other times, however, England demonstrated great carelessness in encouraging positions. At one point Walcott had Frank Lampard in space, with the chance to do something, and passed the ball knee-high. Lampard miscontrolled and the ball went out for a throw-in.
The truth is that neither side looked particularly accomplished.
A better team than England would have exposed Ukraine’s limitations rather than relying on their structure and organisation.
UKRAINE: Pyatov, Fedetskiy, Khacheridi, Kucher, Shevchuk, Stepanenko, Edmar, Gusev (Bezus 68), Yarmolenko (Khomchenovskiy 90), Konoplianka, Zozulya (Seleznyov 90). Subs not used: Koval, Dedechko, Tymoschuk, Mandzyuk, Grechyshkin, Morozyuk, Rakitskiy, Devic, Khudzamov. Booked: Kucher.
ENGLAND: Hart, Walker, Cahill, Jagielka, Cole, Lampard, Gerrard, Wilshere (Young 67), Walcott (Cleverley 87), Lambert, Milner. Subs not used: Ruddy, Smalling, Baines, Caulker, Carrick, Barkley, Defoe, Sterling, Townsend, Forster. Booked: Walker.
Attendance: 70, 000.
Referee: Pedro Proenca (Portugal).