KEIR RADNEDGE in KYIV
— The thunder, lightning and torrential rain may have been in Donetsk last night but the storm of a football match was in Kiev.
Next Tuesday France need a draw against the homeward-bound Swedes after beating co-hosts Ukraine 2-0 in Donetsk in a game suspended for 54 minutes by an early downpour; simultaneously England’s error-wracked 3-2 dismissal of Sweden means they need ‘only’ a draw, against a Ukraine side who will be driven by just about every sporting emotion known to man.
Laurent Blanc’s Bleus owed a deserved victory in the rain to two surgical strikes by Jeremy Menez and Yohan Cabaye early in the second half. By contrast, Roy Hodgson’s England made life immeasurably more difficult for themselves.
They led 1-0, have away two soft goals to trail 2-1 then recovered – sparked by introduction of substitute Theo Walcott – to win 3-2. Sweden coach Erik Hamran was inconsolable. “We have a saying in Swedish,” he grimaced, “the operation went really well but the patient died.”
But that was the contradictory nature of the Group D game in Kiev: this was not the technical tika-taka of Spain, the confident pace of Germany, the tactical wit of Italy or the steely will of Croatia. This was a game strewn with few memorable moves and countless errors . . . yet which was utterly compelling.
Blink or turn away for a moment and the spectator risked missing yet another dramatic twist. ‘Compelling’ is a word which hardly did the match justice.
Also England, as manager Roy Hodgson dropped mischievously several times into his post-match analysis, have Wayne Rooney ready and itching to join the action only now that he has purged his two-game suspension.
When Hodgson built his youthful coaching reputation in Sweden, of all places, his ‘English-style’ approach was not always appreciated. Two league titles with Halmstads and then five with Malmo won the locals around and it was with a very English tactic – the big centre-forward in the shape of Andy Carroll – with which England attached the occasion.
Hodgson’s winning logic could not be faulted. England had beaten Sweden with a headed goal last autumn, Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko had beaten the Swedes with two headed goals here last week . . . and Carroll followed up by heading England in front in the 23rd minute.
Skipper Steven Gerrard delivered a long angled centre from back and deep on the right and Carroll left Olaf Mellberg and Jonas Olsson flat-footed.
Mellberg achieved personal revenge by heading the two goals which put Sweden ahead inside the hour. But it proved short-lived. First Walcott struck an equalising goal out of nowhere and then Mellberg and his defensive colleague were left flat-footed once more as the Arsenal winger laid on a pirouetted winner for Danny Welbeck.
Contentiously Mellberg was selected as man of the match by old France hero Christian Karembeu.
What does this mean to you? he was asked.
“Not a lot,” said Mellberg, an overwhelming sense of disappointment outweighing his sense of diplomacy. “It’s a bit strange to win something when you go out of a tournament.”
It was just that sort of night in the capital of Ukraine.
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