KEIR RADNEDGE in DONETSK
— Football, said Roy Hodgson on the eve of England’s clash with co-hosts Ukraine at Euro 2012, is all about dreams. Well, as the Football’s Coming Home song recounts, England and Hodgson have kept the Euro dream alive by withstanding a fine performance from Ukraine.
If the co-hosts had a Wayne Rooney then they, and not, England would be anticipating a quarter-final date. But in the Donbass Arena they had only an ageing, half-fit Andriy Shevchenko and his 20 minutes was not enough to trump 80 minutes of even a ring-rusty Rooney.
England’s achievement in reaching the quarter-finals, where they will face Italy on Sunday in Kyiv, can hardly be overrated. A new manager, in Roy Hodgson, has had to put back together all the pieces of the jigsaw shattered by Fabio Capello’s abrupt exit. In truth, the under-expectation has served them well.
For a third major tournament in a row, the hosts have failed to make it beyond the group stages. Ukraine followed the vanishing example of co-hosts Poland (like Austria and Switzerland in 2008 and then South Africa at the 2010 World Cup). This may give the football authorities cause to review the policy of taking events into havens of sporting modesty.
Not that England will mind: they finished top of Group D. But they did enjoy one massive slice of luck when, leading 1-0, they saw Ukraine denied an equaliser by the incompetence of a linesman and goal-line assistant.
England were strengthened by the return of Rooney after his two-game suspenson; Ukraine were supposedly weakened by the knee injuy which kept talisman Andriy Shevchenko on the subs’ bench. Not that they appeared weakened: they began with fire, movement and pace and England were panting to keep up.
Andriy Yarmolenko was too slow to pounce when presented with space on the edge of the penalty box, Marko Devic had a drive blocked by Scott Parker and Oleh Gusev capitaised on a nervy misjudgment from Ashley Young to dash in from the right and graze the top of the crossbar with his shot.
Nearly half an hour had gone before England manufactured a chance: a good one, too. The otherwise off-form Ashley Young crossed from the left and Rooney, unmarked and at the far post, glanced his header wide. It was as if the ball had come on to him faster than he expected, the mark of a player short of match sharpness.
A half chance also fell to John Terry before Ukraine pulled themselves back together. Yarmolenko had a shot saved by Joe Hart and then wriggled through the penalty box only for Joleon Lescott to whip the ball off his toes for a corner.
Three minutes into the second half Ukraine were punished for their lack of attacking edge. Man of the match Gerrard beat a defender on the right and crossed. The ball was deflected by one defender, misjudged by keeper Andriy Pyatov and headed in from close range by Rooney: his 29th international goal in his 75th international.
Even better, minutes later came the news from Kyiv that France had gone a goal down to Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Ukraine should have been level in the 61st minute. Marko Devic broke away through the centre. His shot was deflected up into the air by Hart and was falling over the goal-line as John Terry hooked it back into play. TV replays showed that the ball was over the line but referee Viktor Kassai waved play on because his linesman and goal-line assistant signalled nothing.
Oleg Blokhin brought on Shevchenko but it was too little and too late. Six times they had played in the Donbass without a win and this was just No7. Their luck was out and England’s joy was complete with news from Kyiv that France had lost decisively.
Dream on, indeed.
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