LONDON – It was Jock Stein, the former Celtic manager, who said of tournament football: “You qualify in your boiler suit and then put on your tuxedo.”
England made it out of the group stage at Euro 2012 at times playing like a team of gas fitters. It drew 1-1 with France, scoring from its only attempt on target, beat Sweden 3-2 when there could have been no complaints had the game been drawn and then defeated cohost Ukraine courtesy of a goal-keeping howler and a match official failing to see the ball was a foot over the goal line.
Luck usually runs out, and England will need to show more sartorial elegance against Italy in the quarterfinals on Sunday if it is to progress to what would be nose-bleed territory — England has never reached the European Championship semifinals.
Roy Hodgson’s side has exceeded expectations by topping Group D, yet its success has been an uneasy combination of defensive resolution, spirit, skill and good fortune. England has been unyielding but unconvincing, the ugly ducklings of the tournament. It is finding ways to win or not lose matches and so far, so good-ish.
Joe Hart, John Terry, Joleon Lescott, Ashley Cole and particularly Steven Gerrard have been outstanding. The rest have had their moments, though, as two months ago England had no manager and then four of the original squad dropped out because of injury, reaching the knockout phase deserves praise, even if the way it’s been achieved has hardly raised the pulse.
Few would argue that the results have been better than England’s performances and even Gerrard admitted the 1-0 win over Ukraine on Tuesday was “not fantastic.”
England needs more cohesion and composure with fewer misplaced passes. For all of England’s determined defending you cannot continue to concede territorial advantage and invite the opposition to break you down.
Hodgson’s tactics have been designed to make the most of the limitations of his players — cautious and pragmatic, relying on counter-attacks and set-pieces not to mention opponents missing chances and the official behind the goal failing to see the ball going over the line, as it did with England leading Ukraine 1-0.
Marko Devic’s shot was cleared by John Terry, but it wasn’t even a close call.
This may not be the most talented England squad to go to a finals, but there is a refreshing lack of egos and an obvious togetherness with none of the negativity from the boot camp in Bloemfontein two years ago. People are even saying nice things about Terry, for heaven’s sake.
Hodgson’s team selections and substitutions have been successful, bringing on Theo Walcott who scored within minutes against Sweden, while starting a clearly ring-rusty Wayne Rooney against Ukraine after he had completed his two-game ban paid dividends.
Before the Ukraine match the England manager had said he hoped Rooney could be the sort of inspirational figure Pele was for Brazil, but when goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov made a hash of Gerrard’s center he presented the Manchester United striker with the sort of chance that even a 71-year-old Pele would not have missed.
Gerrard has been England’s best player by a distance and Hodgson must take much credit for the midfielder’s superb form.
Hodgson not only made Gerrard his captain, he gave him the freedom to be a box-to-box player.
Fabio Capello believed the England captaincy weighed too heavily on Gerrard and worried about his tactical discipline, but Hodgson has given him his full backing and the manager’s confidence has been repaid with three superb displays including three assists.
Inevitably expectations, initially low, are rising and the general feeling in England is that it is better to play Italy rather than world and European Champions Spain, but we should be careful what we wish for.
Italy has lost only one of itslast 26 competitive games and Cesare Prandelli is proving to be an intelligent, resourceful coach.
Italy qualified for the finals using a four-man defense, but in the opening game of the Euros against Spain he played Daniele De Rossi, usually a defensive midfielder, in the middle of what became a three-man backline with Leonardo Bonucci and Enrico Chiellini either side of him.
Denied his regular left-back Domenico Criscito because of match-fixing allegations, Prandelli selected debutante Emanuele Giaccherini against Spain and the gamble paid off.
Italy has been steady if not spectacular. De Rossi and the peerless Andrea Pirlo have caused havoc in opposing defenses with their passing to Christian Maggio, Giaccherini and Antonio Cassano.
Then there is Mario Balotelli who is unpredictable and never dull. Few would be surprised if Super Mario was the match-winner, equally no smelling salts would be needed if Stupid Mario was sent off.
Whatever England’s fate Hodgson has justified the Football Association’s controversial appointment as Harry Redknapp, the people’s choice to succeed Capello, searches for a new club following his departure from Spurs.
THE REPUBLIC Of Ireland went home having lost three consecutive games at a tournament for the first time. Giovanni Trapattoni has been the inevitable target for criticism, but it was a minor miracle that Ireland even reached the finals with players mainly from the lower reaches of the Premier League and the Championship.
Their best player was Keith Andrews, who spent the first half of last season on loan from Blackburn to Ipswich.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.