Things are warming up rather nicely now in the Euros: the much fancied Spaniards and Germans are showing everyone how it’s done with pizzazz to spare, the Italians are showing promise though still with more pizzas than pizzazz to spare and overall the games to date have been played in the spirit of attacking ambition, making for great viewing. The sideshow has produced further fun, Roy Keane snarling at his country’s perceived lack of ambition, while always looking only one badly received quip away from stabbing Adrian Chiles with a pen. The storm erupting over the Dombass Arena in Donetsk forcing play to be suspended for an hour looked pretty spectacular too. It is a shame that Poland failed to progress from the Group of Dearth for the sake of the tournament’s atmosphere, but I’m happy for the Greeks surprisingly managing to top the group, whose population is essentially deciding on whether to leave the Euro or not as I write. Hopefully they won’t all be too hungover to vote.
I’m happy to say the antidepressant effect of the tournament has already kicked in for me, and from what I’ve observed many others around the continent too. My father who is currently in Italy told me everyone is talking football rather than politics, helping to escape from their sizeable societal problems – although admittedly Italians do tend to stress over football as if their lives depended on reaching the quarter finals. In terms of racism/violence, we have witnessed some pretty nasty thuggery, including a group of Russian ‘men’ kicking the proverbial out of UEFA stewards for being…um…there, but happily football remains the focus of discussion.
Walcott shows some meatballs: England vs Sweden match analysis
As I stood in the pub just prior to kick-off watching the big screen, I felt a twinge of unease. This may have been partially due to my inconsiderate position leaning against the bar, creating a bottleneck for drink orders and causing numerous tuts, but also I think due to my memories of previous encounters with Sweden in major tournaments. They just never seem to let us win.
The game kicked off and the first few minutes were really quite scrappy, the ball being under control for only brief moments amidst clattering challenges, confused punts and accidental ball retention. After 7 minutes though Parker forced a smart save from Isaksson, whose name I have difficulty spelling for some reason. Welbeck glanced a header well wide from a Milner cross shortly afterwards, so my nerves were somewhat de-jangled at this point as it felt that England would create chances aplenty in the game. Indeed, after 25 minutes the poor man’s Ibrahimovic, Carroll, headed in superbly from Gerrard’s excellent cross.
This would prove to be merely the first blow in a long-drawn bruising scrap, most accurately depicted in this analogy as a kebab house scuffle caused by a projectile chip that gets kind of out of hand, ends up spilling into the road nearly resulting in a road traffic accident and the lairiest guy inevitably takes his top off, swings his fists and trips over the kerb. After the goal England’s nerves also seemed to settle, although the tendency for Terry and co to retreat with the likes of Ibrahimovic running at them was a little disconcerting. Young fired a tame effort wide when he probably should have squared the ball to Carroll, so England went in at half-time at 1-0.
Just four minutes after the interval, England conceded their obligatory equaliser. A blocked free kick followed by a mis-fired volley dropped the ball kindly to Melberg, whose shot was saved by Hart but the unfortunate Johnson bundled the ball into the net with a combination of body parts. I instantly retracted my earlier comment to my friend complimenting Melberg’s beard. At the hour mark I noticed England were preparing to make a substitution, and got very excited about Oxlaide-Chamberlain coming on to wreak havoc with his fearless attacking flair. I was disappointed to see it was in fact Walcott who would replace the ineffectual Milner. Walcott is a choker, I thought; he’ll just bumble around a bit and create nothing.
Walcott bumbled around for only three minutes before stupid-beard Melberg scored his second to send Sweden 2-1 ahead. A well taken free kick from the left found a completely unmarked Melberg, who nodded easily into the bottom corner. Just wait until Alan Hansen hears about this… The England players looked visibly stunned, as did everyone in the pub (apart from the girls sitting eating their dinner enjoying the newly found quiet).
Luckily, a further, more positive shock followed after only a minute. A partially cleared corner dropped to Walcott 25 yards out, who fired a shot into the Sweden goal. Quite how it ended up there appeared a mystery, as the ball’s journey into the net seemed rather strange. At first I thought it caught a deflection, given the way Isaksson was wrong-footed as the ball landed pretty much right down the middle of the goal. In fact, no such deflection occurred: the shot just viciously dipped and swerved leaving the hapless goalie dumbfounded and England fans ecstatic. A Swedish conspiracy claiming that Young snuck a Jubulani World Cup ball on for the corner seems probable.
As England’s defence looked increasingly ragged without the usual protection of the clearly exhausted Gerrard and Parker, Sweden created further opportunities, including a shot from Kallstrom that sailed over from 12 yards and Ibrahimovic’s venomous shot saved by the impressive Hart. Both teams were desperate for 3 points going into the last group game, so it felt like something was going to give at one end. To the great joy of England fans, it gave at the Swedish end. Walcott received the ball just inside the box, darted away from the tired defenders (remembering to take the ball with him for once) and angled in a chipped delivery to the near post. What happened next was pure goalscoring instinct. Welbeck, who had slightly overrun the cross, was facing away from goal as the ball approached him. He reverse flicked the ball with his heel, directing it perfectly into the far post. Unbelievable tekkers. Gerrard nearly wrapped things up at the end as Sweden gave up defending but Isaksson made a fine reaction save to deny his close range volley. Game over: 3-2 to England!
Overall, I thought the game was exhilarating, somewhat encouraging but also worrying as England showed signs of major defensive frailty. Too often the back four allowed Sweden free reign into the penalty area after standing off until it was nearly too late. England’s limited ability to keep possession was again clear to see and neither winger was able to affect the game in any meaningful way. Now the good news: Rooney is back for the remaining game(s), who is so good that he has the potential to fundamentally change the way England play. His club partnership with Welbeck will, I hope, be utilised against Ukraine and in Joe Hart England have a wall-like last line of defence. Tuesday’s game will no doubt be an exciting affair one way or another, and I remain optimistic that England will avoid defeat to reach the knock out stages. Ideally, it would be really great if we can put a few past them to avoid Spain who, let’s be honest, are fully armed to embarrass us.
Joe Hart- 8: What a guy. Made some smart saves, looked assured and fearless throughout, especially when verbally abusing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a 6’4” taekwondo black belt.
Glen Johnson- 7: Another good performance, proving many (including myself) wrong that he can perform under pressure.
John Terry- 7: A slightly mixed bag: looked shaky with players dribbling at him but read the game well, making numerous well-timed interceptions as well as a few tasty challenges.
Joleon Lescott- 6: Again, generally solid but looked timid with players running at him. Fears around distribution quality remain.
Ashley Cole- 6: Not quite as faultless as against France, looked more hesitant this time around.
James Milner- 5: Received a lot of the ball in the first half, some would say too much. Played in quite an advanced position, often losing the ball leaving England exposed in exactly the position he would normally be covering.
Steven Gerrard- 8: The scrappy game suited Gerrard’s attributes; high octane, powerful running without the expectation of keeping the ball for long periods.
Scott Parker- 7: Did exactly what you’d expect of him very well up to around the hour mark before tiring and leaving the back four exposed. Should have been substituted, also to preserve him for the next game.
Ashley Young- 5: Come on Ashley, you’re better than that. I remain convinced he will have an impact on the tournament, but had more impact on the floor than the game on Friday.
Danny Welbeck- 8: Scored with the touch of the tournament (if that’s a thing) to lift an entire nation despite a largely quiet game.
Andy Carroll- 7: His headed goal justified his selection and he worked quite hard, although his general play was not particularly fruitful.
THEO WALCOTT (Substitute)- 9: Man of the Match: Great ‘banana shot’ to square things up and used his pace well to set Welbeck up for the winner. His speed is the perfect weapon as a substitute against tiring defences.
And if you liked this, be sure to check Fabio’s first football blog here.