ENGLAND really ought to get past Ukraine, but in football things are rarely straightforward.
If all the nations competing in these Euros were in a league instead of a tournament, playing each other home and away over, say, a year, England would finish way higher than tonight’s opponents.
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There’s nothing like a conflict with Russia to harden your national resolve.
And to inspire Ukraine still more the Russians gave them effectively the best team talk possible just before the tournament.
The authorities in Moscow lodged a complained to UEFA about the design of Ukraine’s shirts.
On them, you see, was an image of the borders of the country. And this image dared to suggest that Crimea is still part of Ukraine.
Having occupied Crimea in 2014, the Russians think it’s theirs.
Can you imagine if Russia had annexed, say, Kent, and then got annoyed if we put the map of our England including Kent on the Three Lions shirts?
This is what Ukraine have had to contend with. UEFA, mercifully, ruled that the map could stay there.
Replica shirts, needless to say, have sold out. All this has helped England’s quarter-final opponents no end.
Adam Pate, an Englishman based in Kiev with a podcast about Ukrainian football – Ukraine + Football – says the country is coming together now behind its national team more fully than anyone can remember.
The biggest footballing moment for Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union thirty years ago was, until now, the day they knocked Switzerland out of the 2006 World Cup.
It was the most 0-0 match you’ve ever had the misfortune to watch. Both sides, to borrow a Bill Shanklyism, were lucky to get nil.
It sticks in my mind for the desperation of the BBC’s co-commentator, Mick McCarthy.
I recall him howling in despair at Ukraine’s tactics – “parasite football” he described it. By which he meant, not trying anything adventurous at all in favour of waiting for the opposition to make a mistake.
Unfortunately, for Mick and everyone else watching, the Swiss mistakes didn’t materialise until the penalty shoot-out which Ukraine won.
I called Mick to ask him for his memories of that game, but he had no recollection of it at all. It was so bad that he seems to have expunged it.
Adam Pate, my man in Kiev, has this prediction: “Don’t be surprised if Ukraine try to do something similar in Rome.” We have been warned.
If it is that kind of game then it might be no bad thing for England that they’re not playing it at Wembley with tens of thousands of England fans beside themselves with anxiety and frustration if we couldn’t score in the first hour.
We can’t help ourselves when we feel that way, but neither can the players help it getting to them.
Time and again watching England’s first four matches, I’ve gone back to something Teddy Sheringham said to me for a Sun interview ahead of the tournament.
He pointed out that success comes to those teams – and their supporters – who can dig themselves out of sticky, uninspiring patches.
He said that stuff is every bit as important as the moments of magic we’ll hopefully be watching on TV replays for many moons to come.
Yes it’s annoying not to be running rings around all our opponents from the first minute, but we have to be patient and not panic.
I’m rather pleased for Gareth and the boys that if we are all panicking at some stage this evening, we’ll be doing so thousands of miles away from Rome.
While Mick McCarthy wasn’t able to help me with any memories of Ukraine’s appalling 0-0 with Switzerland fifteen years ago, he was interesting about England in this tournament.
I’d been slightly worried that it might all turn out to be a bit like the last World Cup for us, when England fell apart upon first coming up against a decent side in the semi-final.
I’m delighted to say that Mick told me to stop being so stupid. “Gareth has got it dead right.
He’s ignored all the noise and done what he thinks is right. England are really difficult to score against, and they have plenty of firepower to score goals themselves.”
Well, that told me. And that tells all of us. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t argue with Big Mick. In Gareth we trust.
That said, I’m quite sure our boys will know they’ve been in a game. An unpleasant memory comes to me from my one visit to Ukraine, to cover our World Cup qualifier with them in Kiev in 2013.
It finished 0-0. Hmm. See above. But what sticks in my mind was a scene that took place during ITV’s pre-match build-up.
I was interviewing Roy Keane on the pitch. As he talked, over Roy’s shoulder I could see an almighty fight amongst the Ukrainian crowd in the seats behind him.
This involved some huge bloke being absolutely pummelled by three other huge blokes. It was a terrible blur of blood and fists. Not for the first time in my career, I was totally distracted from what I was supposed to be doing.
Thankfully, Lee Dixon started talking when Roy stopped. The brawl continued for a few more seconds until the big guy was laid out. His assailants walked away.
At which point, covered in blood, the defeated brawler calmly put his jacket back on and sat back down as if nothing had happened.
Those sitting around him seemed completely unfazed too. No-one even offered him a crisp. These are tough people, I concluded.
Adam Pate, of Ukraine + Football, says the words of the Ukrainian national anthem are worth a look, to get an idea of what they are all about.
I did just that, but only got as far as the line that promises “Our enemies will die, as the dew does in the sunshine.”
Yikes. That’s where I had to stop. Too scary for me.
Not that our boys have any fear they can’t overcome. We’ll be just fine. And if we go on to win this whole thing, I know what I’ll identify as the moment I knew it could happen.
It concerns Muller’s miss at Wembley. It wasn’t the miss itself, rather the reaction of Raheem Sterling.
Having given the ball away, well into the opposition’s half, he’s a study in despair as he watches Muller shape to score.
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When he misses Sterling sinks to his knees, so deeply into the Wembley turf that a teammate has to lift him to his feet.
There’s a man who cares, who really really cares.
This team is something special. In Gareth we trust.
Klitschko: England are tough
By Ben Leo, in Kiev
ENGLAND fans in Ukraine will roar on the Three Lions tonight — as the country’s boxing legend admitted England are among the world’s best.
The Sun joined England supporters at a buzzing expat pub in Kiev where Vitali Klitschko is mayor.
The ex-heavyweight champ, wearing his country’s yellow and blue team kit, said: “The game will be the toughest for our national team.
"England is one of the best teams in Europe and the world.”
Former British Army hero Gavin Kuhl, 43, travelled 1,429 miles from Norway to Ukraine.
He said: “I thought, Why not? It’s the perfect place to watch England smash Ukraine.”
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