Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Rooney wonder goal carries England forward

When Steven Gerrard's tame right wing cross was half cleared by the Ukrainian defence five minutes into the second half, there was a sense of deja vu for long-suffering England fans last night. Once again, a promising attack looked destined to peter out (can anything ever peter in?). Against Sweden or France, England would have remained frustrated, the deadlock more shut than Alan Shearer's world of tactical wonder.

However, this time, England had Wayne Rooney.
Ukraine admire Rooney's moment of genius
Anticipating the danger where no-one else would, Rooney sprinted in at lightning speed, creating the space to allow himself a half-chance. But the odds remained against the new Ballon d'Or favourite, and a collective Eastern European sigh of relief was about to be breathed. And then the incredible happened; Rooney twisted his body to react to the spinning, bouncing ball, and headed the ball into the top corner of the net, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance. The restored England centre forward had made the astonishingly difficult appear incredibly easy. Rooney even scored the goal with someone else's hair.

After that moment of genius, England sat back; not through nerves or tactical naivety, but because they knew that their mix of impenetrable defence and outstanding mental strength would ensure that a one goal lead would be sufficient. On only one occasion did Ukraine look like breaching the rock-solid England defence, but the lightning quick John Terry was able to comfortably clear Marko Devic's shot off the line.

Inconclusive at best
So, England play Italy next, in what should be a pretty easy game. We're not playing Spain, so Italy should be easy to beat. Most of their players don't even play in the Premier League, so they must be awful, or at least not up to the level of the consistently excellent Mario Balotelli. Throughout the tournament, Italy have refused to conform to the 4-4-2 formation, which known across the continent as the most supple and adaptable system to employ in tight, technical European football. At the start of this tournament, I thought that England would have absolutely no chance of reaching the quarter-final, with group-stage elimination a certainty. Now, I think that any sane person would declare England as one of the tournament favourites.

With Glen Johnson combining swashbuckling attacking play with resolute defending, the aforementioned Terry giving the defence much needed team spirit and pace, and Ashley Cole using his personal and motivational skills to cheer on the team, England look unbeatable at the back. On very few occasions have the opposition been allowed to dominate and cause major problems. Look at the France game, where the apparent favourites never looked like scoring.

In midfield, while our continental cousins insist on an extra man and a player with so-called "creativity", England have Scott Parker, a man who works really, really hard, which should be enough to ensure success, even if he doesn't think so. Despite Scott's efforts, the undisputed jewel in England's midfield is James Milner. When the exceptional Gareth Barry was ruled out of the tournament, nearly all England fans were at a loss to explain how England would cope with the superiority of our opponents. Milner. That's how. His pace, vision and crossing will ensure that England continue to cause problems even for the most difficult opponents.

England's secret weapon: James Milner.
Strong as an ox, graceful as a ballerina. 
With exceptional bench strength, England don't even have to worry about injuries to their top players. What if Steven Gerrard gets injured? Jordan Henderson. What if we lose Ashley Young? Stewart Downing. If Rooney loses his (well thatched) head? Andy Carroll. It is almost looking too easy for the English. By contrast, Italy's best reserve striker is Antonio Di Natale, and I have never heard of him, so he can't be that good. Germany's bench includes nobodies like Toni Kroos, Miroslav Klose and Mario Gotze.

When we beat Italy, England will face the old enemy: Germany. I'm trying to be fair to the Germans, but I can't think of any world-class players in their team. They remain a functional, efficient team with a real lack of flair, and it is no wonder they are not highly fancied to win Euro 2012. How the inexperienced Mesut Ozil deals with some good old-fashioned tackling from Scott Parker will be interesting to watch. It will be only a matter of time before England get the ball out to the right hand side and whip a cross in, where someone will be on hand to turn it in. It's a predictable tactic, but it's mightily effective.

Who else could stop the English? Spain I guess. Their midfield may be pretty good, but I reckon they don't like it up 'em. Their defence looks really suspect, with a worrying penchant for passing the ball to the midfield instead of playing the percentages and hitting it to the strikers. It's all very well and good having 80% of possession, but it's what you do with it that matters (Motson, 1978) and football is a funny old game (BBC pundits, circa 1990) because it only takes a second to score a goal (Clough, 1977). Spain don't even play with a tall striker, confirming the suspicions of many football experts: that Spain's "tiki-taka" method lags way behind the innovative system employed by England. Call me crazy, but I can see England winning this tournament.

Watch and learn Scott...
If they don't, we'll know who to blame: the one England player who slips on the turf in the semi-final (these Eastern European pitches really have nothing on our pristine Premier League grounds) or Roy Hodgson, who has had more than enough time to implement his ideas. In all likelihood though, if England lose, it will be of no fault of the team.

Bring on the final!

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