England will face off against Italy in today’s Euro 2012 quarter-final – and the outcome could decide both how the Three Lions’ performance in the tournament will be remembered, and how long Roy Hodgson will be in the national team hotseat.
Following a solid showing in the group stage, where England qualified along with France after narrow victories over Sweden and Ukraine and a draw with Les Blues, English optimism has been gradually building ahead of the knockout stage.
Hodgson’s men had entered the tournament unfancied and without the heavy burden of a country’s expectation – something that has plagued previous England teams, especially the so-called “Golden Generation” of Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard and co. The fact that the former Liverpool, Finland and Inter Milan boss was only appointed on 1 May, just over a month before England’s first game at the Euros, meant that the English press and public prepared for failure in Poland and Ukraine.
A 1-1 draw with group favourites France, which saw a defence-minded display from the Three Lions, was in line with this realism. This was an England team that knew its limitations, that knew when to play for a draw and when to commit men forward. The only real worry that emerged from England’s opener was the side’s inability to defend a lead: Joleon Lescott’s header on the half-hour mark was almost immediately cancelled by Samir Nasri’s powerful drive nine minutes later.
If England fans had thought that match lacked excitement and drama, they were to be pleasantly surprised by the team’s second group game, against Erik Hamren’s Sweden. Perhaps ironically given the recent and increasing clamour for English football to adapt to modern ways and adopt the aesthetically pleasing football of the Spanish team, England’s opener against Sweden, as versus France, came from the typically English route of a long cross from the wing met by a bullet header from close range.
This time, it was Liverpool targetman Andy Carroll who found the net, with Steven Gerrard once more providing the assist for his clubmate. Unlike against France, England held their early lead until half-time, only to capitulate and allow 34-year-old Swedish defender Olof Mellberg to net twice in the space of ten minutes, albeit with a slice of fortune for his first goal.
At that moment, any English pessimism appeared to be justified. Suddenly, the draw against France was not such a good result after all. No wonder expectation was low: this England team was trailing to an average Sweden side ranked only one place above Ireland.
Less than twenty minutes later, self-professed pundits were hailing the tactical genius of a man they had just slated for giving such an apparently awful half-time team-talk. Substitute Theo Walcott equalized for England before outpacing the Swedish defence to set up Manchester United forward Danny Welbeck for one of the most impressively-improvised finishes of all-time (if he really did mean it).
A solid, if uninspiring, 1-0 win over hosts Ukraine in England’s third game was enough to see Hodgson’s men top Group D following France’s shock loss to the Swedes. Wayne Rooney’s goal three minutes after half-time proved to be the decisive moment in a tight affair – as in their clash with Sweden, in Ukraine England were facing a side that needed to win to avoid elimination at the first hurdle.
Whether a slender victory against the Yellows – in which Ukraine even had a goal wrongly disallowed – could be considered a “good result” is debatable: Oleg Blokhin’s men are, according to FIFA, a worse team than the likes of Panama, Armenia and Gabon. In the pressure-cooker situations of a major tournament, however, many England fans were simply relieved to see their side progress.
Tonight’s clash with Italy, themselves the survivors of a group containing Spain and Croatia, will go a long way to deciding whether Hodgson is still in charge come the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Should England lose, don’t be surprised to see a “don’t say we didn’t tell you so” smugness in media coverage, and an apparent necessity for change, while a victory will merit calls for Hodgson to be knighted as his men are hailed as national heroes.
England may well have learned the consequences of piling too much pressure onto their players the hard way, but once more supporters have allowed themselves to become too expectant; how England are now considered favourites against Italy – a side that drew with Spain – but were thought of as underdogs against France – who last night lost 2-0 to the reigning champions – shows that we have not fully learned our lesson.