After Friday’s stroll over Moldova, it’s Ukraine again tonight for the second time in less than three months. Since May 2000 they’ve played here three times and lost all of those games, scoring only one goal (Andriy Shevchenko’s equaliser in the 2-1 World Cup qualifier win in April 2009) so Roy and the team will be looking to pick up another three points in their quest to reach Brazil in less than two years time. With Montenegro and Poland having drawn 2-2 on Friday (the Poles took the lead in Podgorica but fell behind at half time: they equalised just before the hour), after one game England are already two points clear at the top of Group H.
Another England win would be very useful indeed – I can’t see Poland losing to Moldova and Montenegro shouldn’t have any problems in San Marino this evening – as an early lead in the group before going into a home game with one of the weakest sides in Europe next month would be an ideal position before arguably the toughest game in the group.
Ukraine’s away over the last year hasn’t been particularly impressive: they’ve beaten Estonia and Israel but lost their other four road trips and seem to be having goalscoring issues, especially now that Shevchenko has retired and chosen to take up a career in the minefield that is Ukrainian politics. One goal in their last five games isn’t particularly inspiring and the two recognised strikers in the current squad have scored a grand total of three times in 27 combined appearances – although Marko Devic would have had another if it hadn’t been for the incompetence of the fourth official back in June. Unusually these days, almost all of the Ukraine team play at home: only reserve goalkeeper Andriy Dikan and captain Anatoliy Timoshchuk play abroad, although only Timoshchuk plays in what we used to call ‘Western Europe’.
We’re missing a few players for tonight’s match: Ashley Cole and John Terry are injured while Theo Walcott has been ‘violently ill’ after picking up a bug…I doubt if it’s the Stella Flu though. Raheem Stirling of Liverpool, Spurs’ Jake Livermore and Adam Lallana of Southampton have been called up but I’d be amazed if any of them got off the bench tonight. I must admit I like the way that Hodgson is not afraid to draft in younger players: even if it’s just for the experience, it shows them that they could be a part of the England setup if they continue to make progress with their clubs. The problem for Southampton is that international recognition for Lallana probably means he’ll be leaving them at some point, but as long as he doesn’t end up at Liverpool he could have a promising international career.
It’s an 8:00pm kick off this evening, although if you’re a masochist Clive Tyldesley and all his chums will be on air on ITV1 at 7:30pm – so that looks like a good time to go to the chip shop to me. Battered sausage for me please.
We don’t have to compete against other blogs in newsagents, supermarkets and convenience stores, so I’ve not been up all night thinking of a terrible pun about the return of The Messiah.
There are only ten teams left in the tournament: tonight we’ll find out the last of the quarter finalists but as long as England don’t lose we’ll be through to face Spain or Italy at the weekend.
First of all, the game last Friday was the first time for a while that I’ve seen England play in a game that reminded me of domestic football for a long time. On the one hand, that’s a good thing: after a very ropey opening to the second half and having realised what could be at stake, the team dug deep and managed to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory. So far so good: after having had a few ciders at the house of a friend, I walked home feeling very pleased that I’d seen such a spirited fight back.
However, the reality of the situation hit home as I walked past the local stadium. For those of you that don’t know, I am a season ticket holder at an nPower Championship club who haven’t been doing particularly well over the last couple of seasons: and that’s where the reality hit me. What we saw last Friday was a Football League game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the league system in England is almost unique these days and I’m reasonably certain that the Championship is still one of the best supported competitions in Europe. Andy Carroll’s goal was a classic English centre forward’s header that Dixie Dean, Ted Drake or Tommy Lawton would’ve been proud of.
That being said, the Championship is a second tier competition. At times on Friday, England were extremely poor – the old cliche about ‘poor first touch’ was much in evidence once again – against a team that is amongst the top 20 in the world without having ever really done anything at international level for almost two decades. Of the six teams that have qualified for the quarter finals, only the Czechs are ranked lower by FIFA than the Swedes but only Spain and Germany are ranked higher than us. We’re good…but we’re not that good.
On to tonight’s game. Today’s slightly worrying fact is that England have never beaten the hosts of a European Championship tournament: the last three games saw defeats to Italy (1968) and Sweden (1992) as well as a 2-2 draw with Portugal in 2004 before being beaten on penalties after extra time. The situation is made slightly easier by not having to beat Ukraine to qualify for the knockout rounds: the only other time we’ve played against the Ukrainians away from England was the 1-0 defeat in the World Cup qualifiers when Robert Green was sent off.
A draw would be good enough, but we have our less than secret weapon available for tonight’s game. Wayne Rooney returns, although it’s never a good idea to change a winning team, as both my wife and my mother have pointed out over the last couple of days. I wouldn’t want to do Roy Hodgson’s job so I’m going to keep away from having an opinion, but let’s just say that I can see the arguments for and against changing the starting eleven to incorporate Rooney. If selecting him means a major change of tactics – and I don’t think it does – then there’s a case to be made for him to start on the bench.
Overall, so far the tournament has been a good one with the Dutch being a major disappointment whilst the Germans look the pick of the bunch – and before you start wondering, I have put my money where my mouth is. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the Spanish: they were kept in check by the Italians and Croatians but had a field day against an Irish side who were described as a ‘pub team’ by a friend of mine who has Irish ancestry and as a typical British team by commentators in both Belgium and Hungary. The biggest surprise is that Russia were knocked out – although to be fair they didn’t have to go far to get home – and how ridiculously fussy UEFA have been about non-issues like German fans throwing screwed up bits of paper and Nicholas Bendtner’s sponsored underpants.
The most predictable aspect of the tournament: Clive Tyldesley and Mark Lawrenson – although I must admit that ITV’s coverage has been far more entertaining with the tableaux of Polish street life going on behind them. So far we’ve had a balloon seller smoking a fag, a man with a ferret on a lead and some drunken Polish teenagers being cleared out of the square by the riot squad. As far as I know, there aren’t any charity muggers operating there…yet.
England resume their world cup qualifying campaign on April 1st against Ukraine in brand new shirts. Apart from a wild guess that the new home shirt will be mostly white and the change shirt will be mostly red, that’s a topic for another day, so let’s take a quick look at the situation in Group Six.
With a five point lead over both Croatia (who we’ve already beaten) and Ukraine (in third at present having only played three games), there’s a strong possibility England could be the first European team to qualify for South Africa 2010 and despite the recent defeat in Spain I can’t see any reason to disagree. Yet it’s always worth remembering that there are no medals for being the first to qualify
We’ve got a good record against Ukraine (we’ve won both previous games without conceding a goal but we haven’t played them for almost five years), but having said that, they’re currently on a seven game unbeaten run, they’re pretty tight defensively and they’ve got plenty of decent players – some of whom you may have heard of.
The England squad named for this weekend’s friendly against Slovakia and the qualifier next week contained a couple of mild surprises, one of which seems to have backfired. The only new name in the squad is Leighton Banes of Everton, who I would imagine is seen as a potential squad player for next summer; although there’s no doubt that Ledley King is an international quality player he has a debilitating injury that means he can’t train normally from game to game and it’s not totally clear why Fabio Capello bought him into the squad. On Tuesday afternoon it was announced that King had left camp and was considering his international future, which would be a real shame.
England v Slovakia, Saturday March 28th 4pm GMT on Setanta Sports 1
England v Ukraine, Wednesday April 1st 8pm GMT on ITV1