UKRAINE vs ENGLAND
Saturday July 3rd, 8pm
Ukraine @ 8/1
Draw @ 10/3
England @ 4/9
Gareth Southgate’s much-maligned, cautious approach worked very well against Germany. In fact, his plan came together so perfectly, Hannibal Smith would have found himself involuntarily unsheathing another post-coital-esque foot-long cigar. A Team effort, perfectly executed.
But following that result, the expectation of a nation has shifted. The initial acceptable measure of success for England prior to a ball being kicked, was a semi-final slot; now it’s very much the final.
England’s path to that final, and potential immortality, which initially looked cobbled and hazardous underfoot – impassable even – suddenly appears smooth and artfully tessellated. The daunting Venus fly-trap has transmogrified into a fragrant, open and welcoming lotus flower.
If, in early June, you had offered the England manager the prospect of a quarter-final against Ukraine, followed by a potential semi-final against Denmark or the Czech Republic, Southgate would have taken your right arm off, and then the other one – left you looking like the Venus de Milo before you even had time to reconsider.
Switzerland, for example, celebrated their exceptional elimination of France as if they had won the final. Because, in many ways, that match was their final. If you had pitched to them a thrilling underdog victory over their neighbours, tournament favourites, and current World Cup holders, they would have probably given you the green light. Anything else for the Swiss from now is merely icing – they’ve already got their hands on the cake. They’ll always have Bucharest.
So will Southgate alter his conservative approach now that England’s cake has been moved slightly further down the road? Probably not.
England have largely played within themselves: their full-pelt, hearts-on-sleeves, swashbuckling days are a distant memory. But where did that approach ever get us? And did it even really exist at all? Images of Terry Butcher and Paul Ince with blood cascading down their faces onto their white shirts may have made for arresting, inspiring newspaper front pages, but did not provide a sustainable approach to tournament success, especially in the current expanded format.
Southgate has earned the right to continue to deploy his patented formula; and, in the process, to dismiss and mute the endless dissonant, repetitive parping of the pundit brass band.
This is in stark contrast to their opponents Ukraine, who, against Sweden, turned Hampden Park into something resembling a UFC octagon – though it’s hardly the first time that stadium has witnessed such physicality. Lungs were busted, body parts flailed, sinews were strained. The net result: an exhausted and, very likely, depleted Ukrainian XI will be assembled in Rome; with Shevchenko hoping an inspired but bruised Yarmalenko can plunder through the pain.
To have purposely finished second in Group D, as some experts had been advising, would also have been an enormous, Thomas Müller-like error. Tournaments are unpredictable: the so-called Group of Death, for example, conspired to resemble something more akin to a suicide pact, with all three of the most feared Group F sides falling swiftly upon their swords and failing to progress beyond the last 16.
But while the draw may have become unexpectedly benign in terms of opponents, from the outset it was very much in England’s favour in terms of match locations. No gruelling trips to the Baku beyond for our three lions…
Every successful tournament team receives some good fortune at some stage, though, regardless of the extent to which it has been earned. The skill and challenge is being in a position to be able to capitalise effectively upon that fortune.
‘The readiness is all…’
There. Phew! I managed to make it all the way through the article without making any reference to Chicken Kiev. Oh, you actually wanted some bad puns about Ukraine, did you? Well, Crimea river, you’re not getting any…