BY George Utley
Masterclass, weren’t it? It’s a glorious time to be an England fan. Going Out On Penalties To the Germans, like pterodactyl attacks, public hangings and polio, is history.
It used to happen but then we got smart, and now they can’t hurt us any more, and we can all go on a lovely Roman holiday and skip around safely and smugly and...
HANG ON, HANG ON, THAT WAS ONLY THE SECOND ROUND
Like all great tournaments, this one is twisting the very fabric of time. During that magical summer of Euro ’96 that we all blether on about endlessly, there were just 11 days of hope between Gazza’s dazzler against Scotland and Southgate’s meek penalty of doom against Germany.
A quarter of a century later, it’s starting to feel like that halcyon summer again. The 11 minutes between Sterling’s opener and Kane’s clincher alone seemed to last a decade.
Let’s enjoy the childlike hope. Fill up a Panini album and crack open a Capri-Sun. It’s never going to be this good again.
Hard to believe we’re only halfway there, but England still haven’t conceded a goal, which is pretty chuffing promising tournament form by anyone’s standards. Never thought I’d be this grateful to Thomas Muller.
Nevertheless, if we’d picked a more defensive line-up for the Germany game it would probably have been illegal. Gareth selected 5 defenders, 2 midfield shields, and even snuck Bukayo Saka, the excellent wing-back with just 6 Premier League career goals, into his front 3.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an immense battle and a euphoric result. Encouraging also to see Southgate employing the cunning ruse of picking a system to beat the opposition, rather than choosing the most Hollywood names, even if it means we end up playing like them.
This has been a theme of the tournament so far – England were creative against Croatia, stodgy against the Czechs, efficient against Germany and, (sorry!), useless against Scotland. The key to predicting how England will play seems to be by checking out the opponents.
It’s quite a surprise to see Ukraine make it this far, having lost two group games and conceded in every match so far. A quick look at their last 18 months makes for particularly odd reading - 2020 saw them concede 19 goals over 7 games whilst they drew 1-1 with powerhouses Bahrain and Kazakhstan in the run-up to this tournament.
Dodgy at the back and over-reliant on a couple of stars, let’s hope England’s tactics don’t mirror these characteristics too accurately.
There aren’t many 8-foot tall one-legged wingers who can shoot from anywhere, and if Andriy Yarmolenko recovers from a knock he’ll be looking to add to his 43 international goals on his 100th appearance for his country. Bang-average for his club, bang-stupendous for his country, he must be on the same diet as Jordan Pickford.
Ruslan Malinovskyi is your classic football hipster’s wet dream: plays for Atalanta – check. Takes set pieces with either foot – check. You probably haven’t heard of him – checkmate.
Zinchenko never, ever gives the ball away and they have a nuisance up front in Roman Yaremchuk.
The big lump’s carried some fine club form - he shagged in 23 goals in the Belgium top flight this season - into the tournament, notching two goals and an assist thus far.
You could forgive the Ukrainians for being shattered off the back of a bruising two-hour clash with the Swedes, after being pummelled by the equally physical Austrians a few days beforehand.
We’ve been here before though, of course, in the 2018 World Cup semi, when Croatia found superhuman energy reserves to wrestle back control and win in extra time despite playing the full 120 mins in both the round of 16 and quarters.
England’s defence first mentality has worked so far, but it’s hard to understand how anyone copes with the tension. It might be an idea for England to go a tiny bit more adventurous this time around, if only to protect fans from a national anxiety emergency.
Ticket/Covid/travel chaos means England won’t even have their 2,000 allocated seats filled at the Stadio Olimpico. Gutting for the fans, but maybe it could help not to have all those extra butterflies present.
There are bound to be a few changes for this one, as Southgate prefers a 4-2-3-1 against less terrifying opposition than Germany.
England’s midfield shepherds Rice and Phillips are both on a yellow, which could mean a chance for Jordan Brian Henderson to make his first England start since November.
Ukraine will sit deep for long periods, hoping their patchy renegades can conjure something out of nothing on the counter-attack. Mason Mount, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish could all feature here if England look to pick the lock, but Kane and Sterling won’t get a rest if the preferred option is to batter the door down.
Of the only five competitive fixtures they’ve played, England lead the head-to-head 2-1, with two very smelly Hodgson-era stalemates. Wayne Rooney, fresh from the naughty step dumped them out of their own Euros 9 years ago and the teams last met in 2013 in a torturous 0-0, remarkable only for the fact Rickie Lambert was England’s only available striker.
Highlights of that game are few and far between, so let’s look back to a World Cup qualifier in 2009, a night when the crapness of the defending was matched only by England’s amazingly uncool celebrations, and Ukraine’s manager, inevitably, scored.
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