June 19, 2012
Hodgson has magic touch with England
By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency
DONETSK, UKRAINE - England conceded a goal that was as authentic as the one it was denied in the World Cup two years ago and faced searing pressure from a Ukrainian team that had been told by legendary coach Oleg Blokhin to play with greater freedom than ever before.
The Ukrainians did it with blistering soccer that stretched through a game of roaring passion and often fine skill but they couldn't beat England.
Long before the end you had to suspect that nothing could. Maybe the English have made some weird arrangement with fate. Maybe new manager Roy Hodgson has a trick, an insight that is releasing England on the international stage and one that he can reveal later after some improbable triumph.
For the moment, maybe he should just offer his thanks that some mysterious force, including maybe his own good judgment, allowed him to escape from something that always should be known as the siege of Donetsk.
The great Blokhin said his players had nothing to lose, England was a fantastic team that might well reach the final and if the worst happened he was sure his players would not be lined up against the wall and shot. That was easy for the old hero of the Soviet Union, once voted European player of the year, to say. Some of his players did not seem quite so sure.
Alarmingly for England this concern was expressed most brilliantly by two of Ukraine's youngest -- and most creative players -- Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko.
They were sensational, and so were their teammates, as Blokhin, who brought such strength and spirit to the Dinamo Kiev team, roared them on from the touch-line, yelling orders to maintain pressure on the English.
This they did quite relentlessly as England's Wayne Rooney struggled desperately to get into the game, most starkly when he made a horrible mess of a cross from Ashley Young.
Rooney, more than anything, looked as you might have expected after serving a two-game suspension. For most of the first half he was obliged to watch as Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko stretched England quite relentlessly -- and were driven on both by their coach and veteran captain Anatoliy Tymoshhchuk.
John Terry, as discomforted as any of his defensive teammates by the sustained assault, had to block a shot from Marko Devic; Joe Hart had to dive to his right when Yarmolenko slightly under-hit the ball after finding clear space in front of England's goal; and at one critical point Scott Parker found himself trampled under the weight of the Ukrainian attack.
It was certainly not quite what Rooney had in mind when he returned to the team trailing the promise that England had the talent and the wit to go all the way and win its first major title in 46 years. Yet if he was experiencing an ordeal of Ukrainian fire, there was a sense, though a rather desperate one at times, that his team might just be one counterattack from deliverance -- or at least some lifting of the pressure on their need to avoid defeat and elimination.
When the chance came it was maybe, in all the circumstances, inevitable that it should fall to Rooney just two minutes into the second half-- and was almost a formality when goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov failed abjectly to stifle a cross from Steven Gerrard.
Rooney nodded home the bouncing ball and reacted, as he might, as a man who just stepped out of a brief spell in prison.
England, though, was scarcely in the clear and depended hugely on the negligence of Hungarian additional linesman Istvan Vad, who refused to recognize a Ukrainian goal only marginally less legitimate than the one taken away so outrageously from Frank Lampard in Bloemfontein two years ago.
Devic believed he had the ball over the line before John Terry hacked it away -- and within seconds so did the rest of the world.
The Ukrainians refused to believe that if you played some brilliantly inventive soccer, if you kept cutting through your opponents, you wouldn't get some kind of reward.
They kept pushing England to the limit, Blokhin kept screaming into the night. The old hero Andriy Shevchenko, who was not fit to start, came on to add his weight to an extraordinary fight and Rooney came off, a goal to his name but his claims that England could win this tournament perhaps under some understandably sharp review.
It could happen because, of course, anything can in soccer. If you doubt this you should simply rerun the most sweeping of the action and then note that it is England that moves on to meet Italy in Kiev in a quarterfinal Sunday.
After this, you wouldn't put much anything past the extraordinary momentum -- and maybe the strange alchemy -- of Roy Hodgson's new regime.
It is the one that might -- who knows -- just be in the process of breaking all the rules.
James Lawton writes for The Independent in the UK