Early Doors

The man with the Midas touch?

Early Doors

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It pains Early Doors deeply to write the following words, but maybe Sir Dave Richards was right.

The ornamental fountain-botherer made a rather audacious claim earlier this week when saying Roy Hodgson has the "Midas touch", but following a 1-0 win over Ukraine that secured a quarter-final showdown with Italy it is becoming ever harder to argue the fact. Another largely leaden performance from England, yet the gold remains in sight.

Somehow, this fragile England team, which treats the ball with fear and is tarred by possession statistics that would leave Xavi nauseous and in need of a lie-down, have finished top of Group D. They have exceeded the expectations of the media and fans alike by usurping a France side that could only lose 2-0 to Sweden in Kiev on Tuesday night.

Still England plod on, this time with luck, perhaps crucially, aligned in their favour. While a dodgy goal-line decision helped to eliminate Fabio Capello's England from the 2010 World Cup — even if Germany were having a field day with Gareth Barry in any case - this time England were the beneficiaries when the army of officials employed by UEFA failed to spot that Marko Devic's shot had crossed the line prior to John Terry hooking it out from under the bar.

In a city not far from Ukraine's eastern border, how the co-hosts could have done with the intervention of one of those Russian linesmen. A goal would have been just reward for an impressive display that otherwise resulted in acute disappointment at their exit from the competition, national icon Andriy Shevchenko retiring from international football and hot-tempered coach Oleg Blokhin offering a journalist outside for a scrap.

This was not the only slice of luck that fell Hodgson and England's way, though. Wayne Rooney's goal after 48 minutes — incredibly, his first in major tournaments since Euro 2004 — came via a terrible piece of goalkeeping from Andriy Pyatov as he spooned Steven Gerrard's deflected cross up onto the head of the England striker. Rooney's celebration paid tribute to his newly lustrous head of hair and sent newspaper sub-editors into an orgy of punning. They may only recover in time to rehash 'Italian job' headlines for the rest of the week.

But while Pyatov was culpable for the only goal of the game, for most of the night he had a less taxing time of things than Jimmy Carr's accountant.

For large portions of this game at Donetsk's Donbass Arena — a venue where Ukraine have now lost four times in five games — England were the inferior side, by some distance. Pulled apart completely in a brutal first half, with Yevhen Konoplyanka running riot, it came as no surprise to ED to see familiar failings dogging the national side: they were sloppy in possession and seemed completely unable to deal with the superior technique and movement of their foreign opponents.

It is a story as old as time itself. Well, as old as 1953 and Hungary's 6-3 win at Wembley anyway. With Scott Parker seemingly intent on blocking shots with both his groin and his face, this was very much a triumph of character and resolve — very English attributes which we know from past disappointments don't count for as much as we would like when the ability of the opposition reaches a sufficiently high level.

But while this reductive approach was entirely expected in the age of austerity that has gripped the national side's expectations, these qualities have now, somewhat unexpectedly, carried England to a position that constitutes genuine success.

A quarter-final is the benchmark for most England managers — certainly since the country's last semi-final at Euro 96 - and Hodgson has secured his in a matter of weeks. The challenge now is to keep those expectations low and prevent the country from running away with itself. After all, Italy present a daunting challenge in the last eight. Let's not start believing we can win this thing just yet, eh? And stop those mentions of Greece and Chelsea please.

As Hodgson himself conceded, England have already outdone themselves by topping the group an reaching the quarter-finals. When asked if his side had exceeded expectations, he told ITV: "Yes, absolutely, I think they've been really good from the start and that if someone had said we would win the group I don't think they'd have many takers. Most people seemed to think we wouldn't get out of the group so we've won it and we've won it by points rather than goal difference as well.

"This was an away game with a capital A. There were 60,000 people in the stadium and only 4,000 very brave Englishmen so we didn't have too much comfort in that respect. But I thought it was a really good defensive and disciplined performance and when we needed a bit of luck - when it may have crossed the line - we got that bit of luck and we were able to carry on and actually win the match."

England's fans — for so much of the game drowned out by the whistles of an increasingly hostile crowd — revelled in their team's achievement. Thousands of them stayed on long after the final whistle to pierce the night sky with cheers and chants. Perhaps surprised to be looking forward to a quarter-final in Kiev rather than a quick flight out of Donetsk and back to England, they sung at regular intervals: "We're not going home, we're not going home, we're not going, we're not going, we're not going home."

Despite being largely unconvincing for most of the group stage, and showcasing all too frequently their inability to keep hold of the ball, England have indeed prolonged their stay in this tournament.

This is no golden generation, we all know that, but for now at least, and even if England go no further than this, it does feel as though Hodgson has a bit of a golden touch.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Respect my job. Let's go this one on one. You want to go with me? Let's have a man conversation. You should respect that I played football. Did you play football? Respect my job and me. I won't allow anyone to criticise my team, about (Oleh) Gusev or (Andriy) Shevchenko. If you're a man, go with me. One on one." - As mentioned above, Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin gets rather fighty with a Ukrainian journalist.

FOREIGN VIEW: Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini will miss the Euro 2012 quarter-final against England in Kiev on Sunday after suffering a thigh injury. "It is clear that he cannot play on Sunday but we will try to get him fit for the rest of the tournament hoping Italy go further," team doctor Enrico Castellacci said in a statement after bringing forward medical tests originally due on Wednesday. Chiellini suffered the injury in Monday's 2-0 Group C win over Ireland and was replaced by fellow centre back Leonardo Bonucci, who is now likely to keep his place alongside Andrea Barzagli.

COMING UP: Jim White files his latest blog on events at Euro 2012 but it is our first rest day of the tournament before the quarter-finals start on Thursday.

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