First, some observations:
England should have hope for the rest of the tournament, because they simply cannot play as poorly as they did in the first half against Ukraine. The Three Lions were far to willing to cede both possession and territory. Most worrying were Ashley 3 and Ashley 11 struggling to contain a lively Ukrainian right flank. All of the danger came from that side of the pitch, even though Ashley 11 was dropping back into a pseudo-fullback position as England played five men at the back. James Milner’s complete anonymity would be worrying, if spectators weren’t already so used to it by now.
The second half showed marked improvement. England remembered a basic tactic: if the opposition is pinning you down a flank, turn the tables by attacking down that very same flank to keep their rampaging players honest.
After England’s goal, thanks to a wonderful piece of skill from Steven Gerrard and several kind deflections, the players seemed much more buoyant. Gerrard has been England’s best player at the tournament, setting up three goals, and looking back to his imperious best in central midfield. Whether this is due to the gaining the captaincy, or being unshackled tactically via Scott Parker’s role in the team, is a matter for later debate. Enjoy his form now, as there are few players more commanding when in form.
The talking point will surely be the “ghost goal” scored by Ukraine. Omitting the fact that Ukraine’s striker was offside in the buildup, which should technically negate any argument for the goal, there are a few talking points. Firstly, England are no strangers to these kind of events, see: Geoff Hurst, 1966; Diego Maradona, 1986; Miroslav Klose 2010. Perhaps this was some sort of karmic balancing act. More importantly, what is the point of placing officials on the touchline? Excuse my French, but what the fuck was that extra official doing? He was less than 6 feet away and still managed to miss it. By all means, replay footage seems to show him just absent-mindedly ogling the post, pondering just who exactly let those pesky dogs out.
On the whole, England will be happy. They played poorly in the first half, won the game, and won the group. They now are faced with Italy, rather than Spain in the next round, but the semi-finals would appear to go through Germany. Perhaps there is another historic “ghost goal” in the offing?
Quarterly Predictions (I Got Five on It)
Czech Republic v Portugal: The Czech Republic won the group that most people seemingly didn’t care too much about, including some teams in the group (looking at you, Russia). Portugal did very well to qualify from the GROUP OF DEATH. Portugal seem to be clicking at the right moment, with Cristiano Ronaldo finally scoring again. I can’t really see past a well-disciplined Portugal team with Cristiano Ronaldo playing in it.
Germany v Greece: UNDERTONES! GERMANY CONTROLS THE FACE OF THE EUROZONE! GREECE IS DRAGGING THE CURRENCY DOWN! POLITICS COLLIDING WITH SOCCER! BLAAAAH SO MANY UNDERTONES THE PRESS WILL SOON TURN THEM INTO overtones.
In all seriousness, Greece doesn’t have the magic in them, nor do they have a manager like Otto Rehhagel (their man when they won in 2004). Germany have lots of individual talents who can carry them through, and they’ll probably win.
Spain v France: The toughest call in the quarterfinals. Spain are Spain: full of stars, nifty passing, and nimble technique. France are a traditional powerhouse and have a sneaky good team. Spain have not looked like their usual selves. The players are there, but the zippy and incisive passing isn’t. A grueling league campaign will have also taken a lot of out the Spanish stars. I can see France nicking this result in extra time or on penalties.
England v Italy: England and Italy. It’s a bit of a bland fixture, let’s not lie to ourselves. It’s probably going to feature a lot of rearguard action and stellar defensive organization. The excitement will have to be generated from both nation’s mercurial strikers: Balotelli and Rooney. They should be forced to tape one leg together and play the entire game as one three-legged controversy monster.
I kid, I kid. England must play Andy Carroll with Rooney simply because he understands his role within Hodgson’s system more clearly than Welbeck and the rest of the team plays better as well. Italy must do something to keep Pirlo free in the midfield, working his magic. He controls Italy’s tempo so much he makes the trains run on time (bad joke, I know). Cassano and Balotelli are also dangerous, in just about every sense of the word, and are just as likely to pick up a red card as they are to score a miraculous goal, like this one: