After a professional 5-0 hammering of minnows Moldova in Chisinau last Friday night, Roy Hodgson’s England faced their first stern test of the World Cup qualifying campaign against Oleg Blokhin’s Ukraine.
Everton’s Phil Jagielka started instead of Chelsea’s John Terry, who was forced out with injury, a move that arguably strengthened England’s line-up. Other than this, the Three Lions remained as they were in the Moldova game. The much praised Tom Cleverley, playing in the hole behind the striker, faced his first real test in a white shirt and ultimately lacked the nerve and guts to play the killer pass. The Manchester United midfielder – who it seems has had both the England and the United sides basing themselves around him with little evidence to justify such a move – not once looked to make the killer or incisive ball through the Ukrainian rear-guard and too often deferred to veteran captain Steven Gerrard. However, Cleverly did assume some impressive positions in front of goal, only to lose composure. At 0-0, a header across the box from Tottenham’s Jermain Defoe found Cleverley six yards out in front of goal, only for Cleverley to pick out the scrambling Ukrainian keeper. He also failed to convert later chances in the first-half. The first came from a Frank Lampard punt into the penalty area, and the second was a chance created by himself from which the young midfielder hit the post.
England probably had the better chances in the first-half, and should have been 1-0 up within half an hour. Jermain Defoe’s explosive shot from twenty-five yards was ruled out because of a dubious fend off on Andriy Yarmolenko, who did his utmost to make sure the referee awarded the free-kick. Ukraine put immense numbers behind the ball and, as is characteristic of the English game, Hodgson’s side did not have anyone in the centre of the field with either the technical ability or pace to unlock the Ukrainian wall. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was absent on England’s left flank, with Everton’s Leighton Baines supplying any threat that was posed. On the right James Milner ‘worked hard’ as always but lacked the pace to cause any real problems.
Liverpool’s Glen Johnson however continues to improve as an international player and provided England’s most effective attacking outlet for the duration of the game.
When observed on pure form, Ukraine provided little in the way of attacking endeavour, although on the counter attack they were the most threatening side. This was partly because the lack of pace possessed by centre-halves Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott was thoroughly exposed in open space or whenever Johnson wasn’t available to provide cover. Moreover, England had nothing close to a holding midfielder to protect the makeshift back four. Steven Gerrard doesn’t really perform any particular role, he simply charges around; Cleverley was very much supposed to be the creator; and Lampard perhaps played the deepest but is not a combative ball-winner. This combination made the yellow and blue attacks twice as threatening as they need have been. Going forward, Jermain Defoe was absent, largely because the Three Lions looked to cross the ball at every opportunity. Defoe cannot function up front as a lone striker; he becomes too reliant on service from the middle, service that on too many occasions with England is lacking. When he came on, Danny Welbeck equipped himself well and provided he plays regularly at United should be England’s long-term number nine.
The Ukrainian goal was a gem from Yevgeni Konoplianka that ‘stayed hit’ from outside the penalty area to finesse – (B+RB) for Xbox illiterates – its way past a helpless Joe Hart. It took England until the eighty-seventh minute to equalise from a Lampard penalty. A draw was a fair result but Hodgson must now realise the magnitude of the task at hand just to make England competitive against football’s ‘Great Powers’ given the lack of talent at his disposal. St. George’s Park may have come too late for its greatest sponsor.