England, on the back of a 4-0 win over Moldova took on the Ukrainians who defeated fellow group minnows San Marino 9-0 on Friday. With Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Glen Johnson all injured alongside Danny Welbeck who was banned after his ominous second yellow of the qualifying stage against Moldova, the Three Lions looked slightly thin on the ground for usual starters. Cult-hero Rickie Lambert was set to lead the line for England, with James Milner stepping in for the suspended Danny Welbeck.
The game kicked off in Kiev with a moment that could have aroused controversy within 45 seconds as the home side’s forward Roman Zozluya appeared to be fouled by England stopper Joe Hart in the penalty area, 60,000 Ukrainian supporters believed it was a penalty but referee Pedro Proença had a different opinion and opted to give a corner instead. Up the other end of the field, Theo Walcott’s pace troubled ageing left-back Vyacheslav Shevchuk, getting in behind, only for Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov to smother the shot out for a corner, taking a clatter from Walcott’s knee in the process.
England continued to pressurise in the early periods but it was Ukraine who were looking the more likely, right full-back Artem Fedetskiy almost met a Oleh Gusev cross after Steven Gerrard deliberated heading the ball clear, but the full-back in turn lost balance and couldn’t quite connect with a header, poor from the England skipper. Fedetskiy was at it again moments later after an exquisite ball from Edmar from the centre of midfield saw him in behind again but his header across to box intended for Zozulya was cleared well by Gary Cahill.
The match was well contested up until the second-half but neither side looked like scoring. Gerrard had a curling effort that just went over but other than that, creatively, England offered very little in the final third. James Milner was significantly ineffective, I could only watch in despair and think instead of conforming to the modernisation of winger roles of cutting inside, why not play a left footed left-winger who can deliver crosses in for the good in the air, old-fashioned centre-forward Rickie Lambert? Mind you, I don’t believe a left-footed left-winger was actually in the squad and we are in short supply of them on the whole. England were employing a 4-3-3 that lacked edge out-wide, Walcott’s pace troubles any full-back but his end product isn’t always the best and you can’t possibly utilise Lambert effectively without balls being placed into danger zones in the box.
The second-half was very slow starting for England, the sort of performance that makes you question the heart of the players on the pitch, a nation always credited for having great spirit and desire to win games but yet shying away from the occasion like embarrassed teenagers. Credit where it is due, an away game but pre-match midfield duo Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard both expressed how much the players wanted to win the game – the performance certainly did not match these comments.
Ukraine on the other hand were diligently trying to unlock England’s back-four. Yevhen Konoplyanka looked the most potent as he was proving a nuisance for Kyle Walker all evening, showing pace and flair, a sight that was never put into fruition from any of England’s players who never attempted anything out of their comfort zone which for travelling supporters must have been frustrating.
On the hour mark, Konoplyanka put the ball central to Andriy Yarmolenko who stroked the ball into the path of Zozuyla but the lone front-man looked to over-play the backheel that failed to reach Gusev and was cleared. A quarter of an hour later Kyle Walker took down the on-rushing Zozuyla just on the edge of the area; Konoplyanka took the resulting free-kick but Jagielka deflected it wide. From the corner that ensued, Ukraine’s delivery spurred a free header for Fedetskiy but his headed effort should have been better, for what was an easy gather by Manchester City’s Joe Hart in the end.
Three minutes of stoppage time looked to be too long to wait to end a dreary game of football but one last chance arrived as Kyle Walker’s long-throw emerged before Frank Lampard on his 100th cap after very static Ukraine defending, however the Chelsea man headed wide from eight-yards. It would have been unjust had England stole it right at the end but one moment of indecision and lack of concentration can prove costly sometimes.
Simply put, the game was a typical England performance. They got what was required but had they really had a go at the Ukrainians, they more than had enough quality to pose more of a threat to the home-side who themselves lacked cutting-edge. England remain top of the group though, that is all that matters, right? For an Englishman, the level of expectancy of England’s players has always been drastically high considering our recent history suggests we have no reason to be as expecting as we are. For me obviously it is integral to progress to the World Cup in Brazil but I think an overhaul is required after then, not only certain players in the squad but at grass-roots, it is all well and good for Greg Dyke to say foreign talent is halting English players progressing in the “best league in the world” but if talent coming through isn’t good enough then it is as simple as that, reform is required from the bottom.