England, oh the agony. Day eight saw England in action again and thus brought all the stress, nerves and anxiety with it. This time France were in action first, meaning there was an extra couple of hours to get tense and worried before England played on what proved to be a dramatic day of football.
France versus Ukraine
There was a massive thunder storm. Lightening went mental, like old school wrath of the gods angry Zeus mental. The referee took the decision after only five minutes of play and took the players off the pitch for their own safety. This made for a nice calm and relaxing atmosphere in the build up to watching England. Then there was a long delay, and then finally they kicked off again, all of which meant the England game had been delayed by 15 minutes.
There was an epic amount of rain, it was flowing down the stands like a river but the pitch held up impressively well, although I wouldn’t want to play on it again any time soon. Initially the wet surface was good for the French passing game, but then it kept raining and raining and eventually it got a bit muddy and cut up and far from ideal for slick passing football. So credit must go to the French, for playing slick passing football.
France really are quite good to watch, it’s certainly easier viewing with it isn’t your team they are dominating. They set up camp in the Ukraine final third and weren’t leaving until they had scored. Ukraine had a few counter-attacks but never really looked that threatening. When the goals came they were both well crafted. Jeremy Menez took his chance well, having fluffed a better opportunity in the first half. Yohan Cabaye continued his excellent season by grabbing his first international goal with a good finish after a good pass from Karim Benzema who helped himself to an assist for both goals.
Watching France, they kept the ball well, stayed calm and composed, worked it around the pitch, kept Ukraine under pressure never allowing them to get a grip of the game and when the chances came, struck twice to secure a solid lead, then saw out the game with control and professionalism, there simply couldn’t be a bigger contrast between this and what was to follow for England.
England versus Sweden
This game was a prolonged heart attack. It was all going so nicely, but we all knew, all of us who had watched England before, that the good ship England wasn’t going to sail home smoothly, that would be far too easy. The first half brought us the first goal, Steven Gerrard in typical fashion, produced an utterly ridiculous hollywood-whipped-wonder-ball from a deep crossing position and Andy Carroll rose and with tremendous power and timing smashed it off his caveman face with a thump to emphatically give us the lead. We hadn’t played very well, chances had been limited, Scott Parker’s well struck effort worthy of note, but we had the lead at half time.
Then something happened. It always does with England, we just went wrong. Andy Carroll got caught out trying to be a defender and gave away a free-kick. It very much reminded me of when Heskey fouled Zidane before he lashed in the equaliser at Euro 2004. I was not happy about giving away such a needless free-kick, it was a stupid challenge and I was convinced Sebastian Larsson would punish us for it. So when Zlatan Ibrahimovic smashed it into the wall (his only meaningful contribution to the game) I was quite pleased, then it broke to Olof Mellberg who was expertly kept onside by Glenn Johnson, then he had a pretty poor shot which Joe Hart saved easily, but for that man Johnson again, who seemed determined for Sweden to score, deflecting it towards the goal and then agonisingly failing to clear it off the line, 1-1, nightmare.
In fairness to Glenn Johnson apart from for the first Swedish he goal played well. He made a number of good challenges and saving tackles, but watching the calamity of the first Swedish goal was one of his all time classic failures. Needless to say, it got worse for England. Oh how quickly we were behind. James Milner, who was terrible through-out, didn’t track his man, got caught the wrong side and did the sensible thing and fouled him rather than exposing us to an attack where we were out of position. I mean what danger could there be from a free-kick near the half way line, against an England side whose strengths were their organisation and ability to defend set pieces? Bugger.
Our defensive line was horribly deep, nobody attacked the ball, Hart could have come for it but didn’t, he should have pushed the defence up, but didn’t. John Terry should have held the line but we dropped deep and nobody attacked the ball, nobody. This was all terrible, but worse still, Mellberg was given a free-header 6 yards from goal and made it 2-1. Replays showed that it was captain Steven Gerrard who simply didn’t bother to mark him. Mellberg made a decent run, spun round the back and Gerrard simply didn’t move, didn’t look, didn’t do anything, horror show.
It’s typical of England to punish you by letting you down in the only way that you expect them to do well. I mean, I don’t expect us to play sexy slick passing football, but defending set pieces is pretty much the one thing we should be good at. The story is thankfully not over, as Theo Walcott came on and had one of the games he has now and then that make you wonder why there is ever any doubt about him, he was excellent.
He smashed home a leveller after Sweden failed to clear well from a corner. This was after John Terry managed to miss a brilliant chance by heading it straight at the keeper, whom it hit at speed knowing very little about it. How exactly Walcott scored I’m not entirely sure. My intimidate response was “MASSIVE DEFLECTION LOL” but seeing it again, no deflection could be seen, simply put Andreas Isaksson (who was a bit unsighted) made a mess of it. A similar sort of mess that England had made for both Sweden’s goals, so level were the scores in terms of goals and the ineptitude of the defending.
Then, just when you think it’s going to be another horrible let down draw versus Sweden, England produced. Real quality, real ability, real football. We passed it, which is always a good start, Walcott drifting cleverly into space between the lines coming off the right side and driving infield, laid the ball off then made his way back to the right, he then came off the line again, into space between the midfield and defence intelligently, before turning and powering past two defenders at speed into the box. Then he got his head up and found Danny Welbeck with a cross. Welbeck’s pirouette steered the ball home ridiculously and suddenly it dawned on me that we had won it after scoring a beautiful goal.
Let’s take a look back at Theo Walcott’s contribution for the goal. He moves intelligently into space and looks for the ball (using the football brain he’s not supposed to have) then he shows pace and composure to keep possession. Not content he goes back to the right side and looks to get it again, pulling into space between the lines (again using that footballing brain) then he does what we all know he can do, shows great pace and ability to beat a couple of players, then (perhaps most surprising of all) he gets his head up and finds Welback, completing a cross, showing vision and football intelligence. Never has one passage of play shown so clearly why a player should be playing for England and proved so many people (I’m looking at you Chris Waddle) so horribly wrong, that’s what he can do.
In summation, we showed glimpses of great stuff but were, for the most part, pretty poor against a mediocre side, but fuck me it was exciting. I thought Welbeck had a poor game, moments before his delightful finish he was going to be subbed for the Ox. Welbeck wasn’t making runs in behind the Swedish defence and didn’t link up with Carroll at all well. He’s never really played off a target man before and it showed. Far too often, he was coming towards the ball (which he did well against France) when we needed someone to run in behind and stretch the slow Swedish back line. Then when he did get a chance to run at them both times he was disappointingly bossed by Mellberg, but he scored the winner, so by the law of the striker, he had a good game.
The same is true of Carroll, he didn’t hold the ball up well, he didn’t complete enough passes (something which Welbeck does do well) and for the most part England didn’t use him effectively. The goal he scored was excellent, but we didn’t get the ball into the box regularly enough with any quality. James Milner was guilty of wasting good chances to do this but Ashley Young was even worse. Moving back out to the left seemed to flummox him somewhat and I thought he had a really poor game.
To sum up, we’ve scored 3 goals, 2 of which were excellent but at times we’ve defended like absolute morons, which is worrying as that’s the only thing we’re supposed to be able to do. If we can produce the kind of football we did for the third goal against Ukraine then we’ve got a great chance of winning the game. If we produce more of the defending we did against Sweden then we’re going home.
I’m in a state at the end of day eight
France will most likely have too much for Sweden, especially as the Swedes only have pride to play for and are already out. Ukraine have to win to go through and will be backed by the home support. England need to stay strong and it will be a tough ask to get the draw that would see us most likely face Spain in the quarter-finals. Walcott surely has to start after making such an impact and England will be boosted by the return of Wayne Rooney, most likely in place of Andy Carroll. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m optimistic but I’m not totally convinced that we’re going to implode like I have been in the past. All that is certain is that those of a nervous disposition should stay well away from England’s final group game, tense doesn’t even come close to describing how insanely unpleasant I fear it is going to be as a viewing experience.
Highlight of the day: England’s third goal, all of it, because (in the new found vernacular of Gary Lineker) it was SICK.