Early Doors

Defeat would have been more useful for England

Early Doors

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It may have been England's first game at Wembley since Euro 2012, but Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Ukraine had a very low-key feel about it.

In spite of thousands of tickets being sold to London 2012 volunteers at a heavily discounted price, the crowd numbered fewer than 70,000.

The entire top tier of one side of the ground was empty, and even the large St George's flag held up at one end of the ground during the home team's national anthem required the participation of fewer home fans than normal.

As such, England were appropriately underwhelming as they were held to a 1-1 draw that history may remember chiefly for Steven Gerrard's late red card, making him the oldest player ever to be sent off for the country.

It was their worst performance in four months and nine unbeaten matches under Roy Hodgson's management when put up against the expectations placed upon the team at the time.

Most of England's time in Poland and Ukraine hardly made for an edifying spectacle, but that was in the context of a side which had its manager drafted in at the last minute with the immediate brief of avoiding embarrassment rather than bringing home any silverware.

But in the wake of last week's 5-0 mauling of Moldova and last month's entertaining 2-1 win over Italy, more was expected of England's first home game of the Hodgson era proper.

Even with so many players unavailable for the repeat of their final Euro 2012 group game, England were disappointing and disjointed. While they eventually had more of the possession and created more chances after a poor start, the visitor's lead through Yevhen Konoplyanka's 38th-minute cracker of a goal was not undeserved.

Tom Cleverley has been anointed as England and Manchester United's future No.10 by many sections of the media for a long time now despite playing just a handful of games for either team, but he spent his hour or so last night missing good chances when he wasn't being marked out of the game by Anatoliy Tymoschuk. The veteran midfielder extended his record haul of caps for Ukraine to 121 at Wembley and, it's fair to say, has had more difficult nights representing his country.

Gerrard and Frank Lampard proved that their decade-old midfield partnership is like Hovis — as good today as it's always been. The lasting impression of Lampard's performance was greatly embellished by his almost unerring ability to kick a stationary football hard at a big target from 12 yards which pulled England level three minutes from time. Moments later, Gerrard was sent off for a second yellow card. As he left the field he was announced as the sponsor's Man of the Match, an announcement which was changed to Lampard so hastily that that graphic on the big screens was altered in full view of the crowd.

But England can look back upon their biggest disappointment and see themselves joint-top of Group H after two games and still without a defeat in nine games under Hodgson. If they do not lose either of next month's qualifiers against San Marino and Poland or November's friendly match away to Sweden — yet another Euro 2012 reunion — then Hodgson will match the post-war record of 12 matches unbeaten as an England manager at the start of their tenure. That is a record which is currently held by Graham Taylor, the last man who failed to guide England to a World Cup finals.

Perhaps it would have been better all-round if England had lost to Ukraine last night.

The savaging that they have been given on so many of this morning's back pages would certainly feel a lot more justified had Lampard not levelled too late for a thorough re-write.

Ukraine would have felt a greater sense of justice for Marko Devic's 'ghost goal' at Euro 2012 which, had it stood, would have given the co-hosts a fighting chance of reaching the knockout phase.

A competitive loss at home to the team currently placed 39th in the world would surely have brought to an end England's embarrassing occupation of third spot in the FIFA rankings come the next monthly update of the table.

Hodgson's honeymoon period as England manager would have come to a definitive end, and the pressing need for lessons to be learnt would have felt more immediate at a stage in the campaign early enough for decisive action to be taken by the coaching and playing staff.

Instead, all involved are left without the joy of victory of the cathartic anger at defeat, just that damp, grey sense of mediocrity that is unmistakably England.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Unbelievably, only this week will bereaved parents learn personal details about what happened to their children. From today, the families will be at last able to say they have cleared the names of their loved-ones, of the survivors and of the Liverpool supporters. It is impossible to put a value on that. After truth comes justice. We will ask the Prime Minister for a new inquest without the cruel cut-off. We will fight to remove the unsound verdict of "accidental death" from the official record. Today, truth. Tomorrow, justice for the 96." — MPs Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram release a jointly-written article ahead of the Hillsborough Independent Panel releasing its findings today along with 400,000 pages of documents relating to the disaster.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I'm Javi Martinez!" — What the Bayern Munich summer signing is reported to have cried when he was caught by a security guard as he broke into former club Athletic Bilbao's training ground in the middle of the night to retrieve his belongings from his locker.

COMING UP: Not much in the way of football happening today, although we will be bringing live scoring of the Welsh Premier League clash between Prestatyn Town and The New Saints this evening. England's summer cricket programme ends this evening with the final T20 against South Africa (18:30).

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