Wayward Rooney dumps Ukraine out of finals on night to remember
AFTER A day of scorching heat in Donetsk, the temperature had dropped significantly by the time last night’s match kicked off. For England, however, it felt like a heatwave as Ukraine opened by attacking at pace in numbers and without respite.
Worries about Wayne Rooney’s boiling point immediately took second place to concerns that the co-hosts, whose aim in the tournament was to advance beyond the group stage, were turning the stadium into a cauldron in which England’s hopes would evaporate. But it was Rooney who, three minutes into the second half, produced the headed goal that rewarded his team-mates for refusing to yield.
Every time the home team had the ball in England’s half, which was the case for almost the entire opening half-hour, the noise rose from the grandstands like a wall constructed in one of the city’s steel plants. The chants of England’s heavily outnumbered supporters were swamped, while the white-shirted defenders could not hear themselves think. It took several fine interventions by John Terry to prevent Ukraine from capitalising on their display of sustained aggression.
And yet, despite the almost incessant pressure, Rooney should have given England the lead even earlier. It was just before the half-hour when he rose to meet Ashley Young’s cross but could not guide his header inside the post.
For all Roy Hodgson’s reassurances, there had been a fear that, restricted to a mere 37 minutes of international football in the past eight months, Rooney might lack sharpness or react with the sort of explosive energy that has damaged England in the past. This happened most recently last October when his kick at a Montenegrin opponent in the final qualifying match cost him his place in last week’s France and Sweden fixtures.
Better that it should be the former, and there was a definite ring-rustiness to that first header.
England’s attack were on the shortest of rations in the early stages, but there was still the occasional subtle linking touch to Young or Danny Welbeck from the returning No 10, on whose shoulders such a weight of responsibility had been heaped, not least by his manager.
It is rare for a manager to give an individual player the sort of advance publicity which Roy Hodgson granted Rooney before last night’s match. The manager seemed to have decided that the most effective way to get Rooney playing at his best is to tell him, via repeated public pronouncements, that the team’s fortunes depend on him.
His return even had the manager mentioning him in the same breath as Pele, who, said Hodgson, was capable of producing his very best football when it was most needed, helping Brazil to win World Cups.
“Let’s hope that Wayne Rooney can start to do that for us on Tuesday night,” he said. “Then, if we win, who knows? If Wayne can produce his best then he can help us keep going even further.”
Hodgson was not the first England manager to invoke the name of the great Brazilian while discussing Rooney’s potential. After watching the teenager score four goals in England’s group matches at the Euro 2004 finals, Sven-Goran Eriksson compared it to the time when another 18-year-old prodigy burst on to the international scene. “I don’t remember anybody making such an impact on a tournament since Pele in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden,” said the Swede.
Last night Rooney was earning his 75th cap and, at 26, was hoping that his fourth appearance in a major tournament would finally be the one to justify the acclaim. Oddly, the pre-match statistics showed that, since his debut in 2003, England have done better without him: a 68.6 per cent victory ratio and an average of 2.09 goals per game, compared with 60.8 per cent and 1.89. The statistic that Hodgson was looking at, however, was the one that said Rooney had scored 17 goals in the 20 Premier League he and Welbeck started together for Manchester United last season.
A couple of minutes after Rooney missed with his first header, Ukraine’s best attack saw a neat combination between Marko Devic and Artem Milevskiy enable Andriy Yarmolenko to cut inside and unleash a drive brilliantly saved by Joe Hart. After that it began to seem as though they might have blown themselves out, and Rooney’s second effort with his head, shortly after the interval, made their task more awkward.
If there was nothing much to the header itself, there was plenty for Hodgson to admire in his superstar’s alertness when Steven Gerrard regained possession from a half-cleared corner and curled in a diagonal cross that took two deflections before bouncing up invitingly in front of Rooney, who was waiting on the far post.
Ukrainians will watch again and again the shot from Devic that came off Hart before Terry hooked it out from behind the line in the 62nd minute. For England, this was a belated compensation for an old injustice, the one that befell Frank Lampard against Germany two summers ago.
They know better than anyone that, for Oleg Blokhin and his players, the pain and the resentment will be slow to fade.