England ride their luck into Euro 2012 last eight with Ukraine win
For once it was England’s opponents who had a goal disallowed – and with Sweden beating France, Hodgson’s men topped their group
ENGLAND are through to the last eight of Euro 2012, and through with ease, finishing top of Group D for the honour of facing Group C runners-up Italy on Sunday. A goal from Wayne Rooney saw off the threat of the Ukraine while Sweden shocked France with a 2-0 win that condemns Laurent Blanc's side to a quarter-final clash with world champions Spain.
It was far from a vintage performance from England and Rooney's simple goal was his only contribution in an otherwise poor display from the Manchester United striker. The Ukraine will also point to a 'goal' that never was, a shot from Marko Devic that Joe Hart parried and John Terry cleared off the line. Only TV replays showed it was behind the line when the Chelsea captain kicked it clear.
How assistant official Istvan Vad missed it, God only knows, but then England fans might ask how the linesman didn't rule Ukraine offside in the build-up to the 'goal'.
Nonetheless the incident provided the main talking point at the post-match press conference with Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin still raging at the decision.
"There are five referees on the pitch and the ball is 50 centimetres behind the goal-line," Blokhin stormed. "Write what you want. You've seen it." Blokhin then boiled over, suggesting to one reporter that if he had a problem with his coaching skills they should "go outside and have a man conversation".
He then demanded of the startled journalist that he must "respect my job and me. I won't allow anyone to criticise my team".
But it wasn't just homegrown hacks that Blokhin was after. He was scathing of England's physical approach, accusing substitute Andy Carroll of "playing with his elbows" and John Terry of conceding "fouls from behind". He also dismissed Rooney's goal as lucky and said: "England just played on the counter-attack. In the second half, they had no opportunities. Their threat only came from a few set-pieces."
England weren't that bad, although it's true the Italians won't be quaking in their boots at the thought of Sunday's encounter. Nonetheless there's a steel to this England side that has been glaringly absent in previous international tournaments.
There was a febrile atmosphere in Donetsk's Donbass Arena with England's 5,000-strong contingent of supporters outnumbered by the co-hosts' fans, all 48,000 of them, desperate to see their boys qualify for the quarter-finals.
The Ukraine started the stronger of the two teams, dominating possession in the first-half as England struggled to find their rhythm. Yet despite their inferiority England had the best chance of the first period when Ashley Young delivered a sweet cross from wide out on the left. Rooney found himself unmarked in the six yard box but he made a hash of the header. It wasn't a chance that Andy Carroll, demoted to the bench to make way for Rooney, would have missed.
Rooney made amends three minutes into the second half when captain Steven Gerrard (once more England's standout player) crossed from the right and the ball slipped through the arms of Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatoy. This time not even Rooney could miss, heading the ball into the net from all of a yard for his 29th international goal.
"I haven't scored in a major tournament in a while and it was nice to do that with the winning goal," Rooney said later. "The whole team was fantastic, we defended really well and stuck in there at times against a difficult crowd. Our fans were brilliant and we deserved the win."
Even the most diehard England fan would question whether England deserved to win, but they did, and as Roy Hodgson pointed out later perhaps it's time the Three Lions had a bit of good fortune in a major tournament.
"Of course it was a slice of luck," Hodgson said of the Ukraine 'goal'. "We as England have suffered with bad luck against Portugal and against Germany in big matches in the past. Perhaps it was important today that if there was going to be luck, we got it."
Gerrard played in both those games, against Portugal in the 2004 European Championships when Sol Campbell's headed goal was controversially disallowed and against Germany in the 2010 World Cup when Frank Lampard suffered a similar fate to that of Devic.
Not surprisingly, the England skipper wasn't going to shed tears for the Ukraine. "To be successful in these tournaments you need a bit of luck," Gerrard said. "Two years ago we didn't get the luck with Frank Lampard's shot against Germany. We had to pack our bags and go home. But if you keep fighting you earn your luck and we have done that with our performances in the group."