Tom English: England’s progress at Euro 2012 appears written in the stars but the weight of history is against them
“Something is happening here...” said Neville over and over, as if Roberto Di Matteo’s side had the benefit of some kind of cosmic force. “It’s written in the stars...” said the Sky pundit repeatedly, and that was even before Torres completed the most unlikely success story that any of us have ever seen. When Chelsea went on to win the final, Neville might as well have had a crystal ball in front of him instead of a microphone so was his fondness for banging on about the Gods and fate and Didier Drogba.
Of course, Neville is taking a sabbatical from his punditry to be at Roy Hodgson’s right-hand at the European Championship. You wonder if he’s repeating his sooth-saying ways. Is he going around the England camp talking about how the stars might be aligned for Hodgson’s men just as they were for Chelsea? Since their victory over Ukraine on Tuesday night there have been several mentions of the Chelsea Effect, the fact that England, too, have had to overcome huge adversity to get this far.
There’s been the Fabio Capello farrago, the John Terry-Rio Ferdinand eruption, there was a battery of injuries before they ever left London and assorted other issues to get their heads around. And yet they’re still alive in the tournament when many people thought they’d be done by now. They’re in tonight’s quarter-final against Italy in Kiev despite having just 45 per cent possession in their opener against one of the pre-tournament favourites, France, despite having only 42 per cent possession against a moderate Ukraine and despite conceding two awful goals against the Swedes.
Hodgson has been very impressive. His team has togetherness and humility. The egos are in check. Their performances have not been eye-catching, but they’ve been disciplined and professional and clinical when goal-scoring opportunities have arisen. Wayne Rooney might have missed an easy one against Ukraine, but England have converted a high percentage of their chances. A month ago, who would have given tuppence for their hopes of making the semi-finals? But they have what boxers call a puncher’s chance tonight. Italy are well ahead technically and will start as favourites but they’re no Spain. Hodgson’s men dodged a bullet there.
Is it written in the stars, as Neville might say? Well, if you’re looking for evidence of a celestial hand at work there are bits and pieces to go on. Hodgson’s substitutions have paid off like a slot machine spewing coins, particularly the jackpot move to send Theo Walcott into the fray against Sweden. Then there was the goal that wasn’t against Ukraine, a slice of luck that helped England top the group. That and the unforeseeable collapse of the French against the Swedes on the same night that meant, instead of having to face the world and European champions, Spain, they are up against Italy, a side who have won just two of their last ten matches in major championships.
The stars aligned? The other day Joe Hart mentioned Chelsea when quizzed about his preparation for a possible penalty shoot-out this evening, a fair bet given that, of those ten matches Italy have played at the Euros of 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup of 2010, six of them finished in draws. In four of their last seven major championships England have exited on penalties. In their last two shoot-outs they have missed five out of the 11 penalties taken. No wonder Hodgson is upping their practice time from the spot.
England know precisely who is going to take their penalties tonight should it come to it. If they’re still on the pitch, the chosen ones are Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Glen Johnson, but the whole procedure is down to chance, according to Hart.
“Penalties are a lottery,” he said. “There was this jinx about English teams never beating German teams on penalties but then Chelsea blew that out of the water in the Champions League final.”
In fairness to Hart, he’s overstating the point. Chelsea’s first successful penalty in that shoot-out was scored by Branislav Ivanovic of Serbia, the second by David Luiz of Brazil, the third by Frank Lampard who is not around to take one against Italy and the decisive one by Drogba of the Ivory Coast. Of Chelsea’s five penalty takers only two were English and only one of them will be involved in this quarter-final – the ice-cool Cole.
As admirable as Hodgson’s work has been so far, progression from the group stage of major tournaments is nothing new for England. It’s normally round about now that their technical deficiencies come back to bite them. Either that or their propensity to shoot themselves in the foot with a Rooney red card or some hapless penalty taking or a David Seaman blunder from a distant Ronaldinho free-kick.
For all that’s been written about their disastrous World Cup two years ago, England only conceded one goal in the group phase and were actually deemed 50-50 to beat the Germans in their ill-fated round of 16 game, given that Germany were considered no great shakes at that point having already been beaten by the Serbians early in the tournament.
That was when the wheels came off England’s campaign, when their desperate inability to hold on to possession saw them humiliated. Of course, England back then were a less organised outfit than they are now. This is what gives them hope.
Gerrard is the uncomplicated captain they have been looking for and Hodgson the pragmatist they’ve been needing. If luck is on their side, too, you can’t discount them. Spain, you fancy, wouldn’t have had much trouble in combating England’s hard graft while exposing the weaknesses that still exist in the heart of their defence but there’s no such certainty with Italy.
Hodgson had some trying days in Italy as a club manager with Internazionale and Udinese, places that acknowledged his dignity without ever admiring his brand of football. His philosophy for success is never going to quicken the pulse but at least some practicality has got them this far. For all the garbage spoken about the supposed Golden Generation of past tournaments this unfussy lot have as good a chance as any before them of making the semi-finals of the Euros for the time since football came “home” in 1996.
To complete the job they need to do something no England side have ever done on foreign soil. They need to beat a major nation in a knockout match. Is it written? Is something really happening? Tonight is the great test of the cosmic theory.