KEIR RADNEDGE in DONETSK
— The last time England contested the finals of the European Championship they went out to the hosts. That was in Portugal in 2004. But at least that exit was in the quarter-finals (and on penalties).
The imminent duel with Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine in Donetsk is ‘merely’ one of the two matches which comprise the last round of the group phase: the other pits Group D leaders France against already-eliminated Sweden in Kyiv.
Ukraine need to win; England need ‘only’ a draw. The crowd will be with Ukraine but they are playing in a jinx stadium and off the back of a defeat by France which punctured the momentum sparked by an opening win over the Swedes. Oleg Blokhin’s men have yet to win in the three-year-old Donbass Arena. They have played five times, lost three and drawn two.
On that estimation England have a fragile advantage in their most important match for a very long time. This is the opportunity to reach a major quarter-final: the step which proved so wildly beyond Fabio Capello’s England in South Africa at the World Cup two years ago.
England are unbeaten in their four games under Roy Hodgson and have gained in confidence from the powers of recovery displayed in Friday’s win over Sweden and the return of Wayne Rooney after suspension.
Both Hodgson and captain Steven Gerrard insisted, ahead of the game, that they expect Rooney to light up the match but not to let his fire burn out of control.
Hodgson praised the efforts thus far in his four-match reign of fellow strikers Danny Welbeck and Andy Carroll. They had handed him the “classic manager’s headache” but there was no doubt that one will drop out from the starting line-up against Sweden last Friday to accommodate Rooney’s return.
The manager said: “I’ve been impressed with the way Wayne’s gone about his work in the training sessions and in talking with the younger players so I don’t have any fears. He knows how important the occasion is not only for himself but for his team-mates.
“He’s been training fully and, I’d say, is every bid as sharp as when he finished his last game for Manchester United.”
Gerrard added: “Everyone knows what Wayne Rooney is all about. He makes us a lot more threatening. He’s a world-class player and I can see it in his eyes that he is itching to to get out there and perform. Hopefully he can make the difference.
“Certainly I’m not going to tell Wayne Rooney not to be fired up. That’s what he’s all about. But I’m sure he’ll behave himself well and put in a performance for the team.”
Gerrard, who made his international debut against Ukraine in May 2000, did not want to speculate about the next step if England reached the quarter-finals.
“Winning the group is the aim,” he said, “but it’s important we don’t get ahead of ourselves. There’s an important and difficult job to do and then we’ll see where that takes us.”
Gerrard ascribed the difference between the Capello and Hodgson regimes, surprising, with the word “professioinal.” He added: “The lads are working hard in training, we have an excellent team us and we’re enjoying it because we’re playing well and it’s important now we build on the platform we’ve set ourselves.”
It says much about the level to which England had sunk that an unbeaten run of a mere four games had sparked a revival of belief, albeit cautious, among fans.
Hodgson had always kept a tight grip on expectations and he was not going to relax his sense of balance now, concluding: “Dreaming is what football is all about so we’ve got to be happy that expectations have risen. It doesn’t mean we can guarantee success or fulfil expectations but it’s nice to know there’s a lot more belief in the team.
“We are talking about a lot of individual cup finals. A lot of things can happen over 90 minutes that a football team can’t control but we’ve given ourselves a chance and we’re determined to give all in our power to make it happen.”
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