Roy's boys are in the mood! England are a far cry from the rabble of South Africa
22:07 GMT, 18 June 2012
Standing in a doorway deep in the Donbass Arena here on Monday night, Steven Gerrard was taken back briefly to a time when there was rather less harmony in the England camp.
It was two years to the day since that goalless draw against Algeria in Cape Town, a game memorable not so much for the dire football as the diatribe Wayne Rooney directed at the England fans down the lens of a television camera.
Then under the guidance of Fabio Capello, England were in a mess. The match was followed by a few beers, which John Terry later presented as some kind of players’ mutiny during a press conference that actually sounded like a one-man coup.
In it together: England's squad looked at ease ahead of their crunch game against Ukraine
Two years on and the mood could not be more different. ‘The reason for that is because of how we are playing,’ said Gerrard. ‘We are playing well and we are playing positively. We are enjoying how we are playing. Everyone knows that in South Africa the team weren’t playing at a good level. Now we can’t wait for tomorrow night. We have Wayne Rooney back and everything is positive.’
After two excellent performances against France and Sweden there is a sense of unity and a growing feeling of confidence, even if both Gerrard and Roy Hodgson were at pains to temper their ambitions and look no further than Tuesday evening’s game against Ukraine.
Hodgson knows the low expectation that travelled with England is quietly being ushered out of the back door. Rooney has spoken of how England are among the sides capable of winning the tournament. Gerrard responded to their spirited defeat of Sweden by declaring this England side ‘unbreakable’.
England’s manager summed it up nicely. ‘You play football at international level to try to get people carried away,’ he said. ‘Dreaming is what this is all about.’
Pitch inspection: England's players got a look at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk on Monday
But Hodgson and his players are not daring to dream. While the coaches have sat through hours of analysis of their opponents, the players have focused on recovery then on what is expected of them. There is a huge temptation to plan ahead and start picking the quarter-final they would prefer. Gerrard, however, was having none of it.
‘I am trying to force myself not even to talk about quarter-finals,’ said the captain. ‘It would be very disrespectful to the opposition tomorrow, who are dangerous. We have watched tapes. Their combination play in the middle and around the box is good. If I started talking about quarter-finals and we slipped up, I would never forgive myself.’
Hodgson echoed the sentiment and further explained the dangers presented by a Ukraine team playing at home and needing to win. As Hodgson said, it is about more than Andriy Shevchenko.
‘They are a very good counter-attacking team,’ he said. ‘They are a very quick team, breaking out of defence. They also have the ability to keep the ball very well in the middle of the field through Tymoshchuk and Nazarenko, with Voronin or Shevchenko dropping deep. We have been impressed with them.’
Roy's relief: England's saviour against Sweden, Theo Walcott (second left), will be fit to play
In many ways this presents the kind of challenge that should suit Hodgson with its demand for the right balance between ambition and consolidation.
Draw and England are through to the quarter-finals and, before a ball was kicked here, the new England manager would have certainly settled for that. So would the FA given the chaos that has engulfed the team these past few months. But playing for a draw can be dangerous.
Perhaps that is why Hodgson is wrestling with his options on the right wing, between a more attacking line-up that sees him start with Theo Walcott to exploit a lack of pace in Ukraine’s defence and a more conservative approach with James Milner, who ran 1.4km further than any other England player against Sweden.
Dangerman: Ukraine striker Andriy Shevchenko (centre) in training on Monday
Hodgson kept his players guessing, even if he had made it clear by then that Danny Welbeck would partner Rooney up front with Ashley Young on the left flank.
For Hodgson, it has already been a fairly successful tournament. He got his tactics right against France and he did so again against the Swedes, the decision to select Andy Carroll paying off as much as the decision to send on Walcott as an impact substitute.
It had Sir Dave Richards, here as chairman of the FA’s international committee, declaring — a tad prematurely — that Hodgson possesses ‘the Midas touch’.
‘I suppose I feel on a roll because I’ve found it such an enjoyable job to do,’ said the manager. ‘But it’s nicer to work in a position where nobody expects too much from you. Once people are giving you praise, you get concerned because then you get worried that you’re going to let them down.’
He did not let anyone down here, and neither did Gerrard.
They both paid a moving tribute to Danny Fullbrook, the Daily Star chief football writer who lost a battle with cancer at the age of 40 on Monday. A lifelong Fulham supporter, Danny certainly would have taken pleasure in the contrast between England now and the England team he followed, with the rest of us, in South Africa two years ago.