19 Jun 2012

Rooney returns as England bid for the last eight

England will need to work in unison if they are to overcome Ukraine backed by a partisan, local crowd, Channel 4 News’s man in the English camp, John Anderson, warns.

Wayne Rooney's return is a boost as England bid for the last eight (Reuters)

After a curate’s egg of a victory over Sweden which showcased the best and very worst of what English football has to offer, the national team find themselves a point away from the Euro 2012 quarter finals.

It was one of those crazy 3-2 matches which England seem to periodically dish up just to remind us that however well they may play in parts, there’s always a calamity lurking around the corner. The World Cup quarter final against Germany in 1970, the capitulations against Portugal and Romania at Euro 2000 and the 2007 “Wally With The Brolly” qualifier at home to Croatia all combined admirable qualities going forward with astonishing defensive lapses. The difference of course on Friday night was that we finally managed to triumph by the odd goal in five.

Nevertheless, it rather brought to mind the words of a sagely newspaper colleague on the return from Eindhoven in 2000 when England had lost to Portugal after surrendering an early two goal lead. The metaphor he produced to sum up the display could not have been more apposite.

‘Pantomime horse’

“It was like a pantomime horse” he opined “but with only the front legs.”

England will need both sets of legs working in unison if they’re to overcome another night of stifling heat in Donetsk as well as the heat generated by a partisan local crowd whose side must win to avoid completing a host nations’ clean sweep of first hurdle elimination.

Ukraine may not be on a par with the side which reached the World Cup quarter finals in 2006 and they were very poor in their rain delayed defeat against France, but if England defend like they did during those 15 minutes of infamy at the start of the second half against Sweden, then Andre Previn never mind Andriy Shevchenko would fancying his chances of scoring.

But England too have their talisman. Wayne Rooney is back after sitting out the opening two group games as a result of his still incomprehensible sending off against Montenegro in October. Since his arrival in Krakow on 6 June, the Manchester United striker has experienced a harrowing visit to Auschwitz, celebrated his wedding anniversary at a local restaurant and unveiled a haircut which resembles what would happen if Morrissey asked his barber for a Number One but then chickened out when the razor got above his ears.

Camp joker

What Wazza hasn’t done yet is kick a ball in anger which would, in the past, have been a source of immense frustration for a player who does not traditionally react well to periods of inactivity and boredom. However, he does finally seem to have matured in that respect and has been committed in training, a source of encouragement off the pitch and genuinely remorseful about the folly that led to his suspension. In a squad of many level headed, some would say introverted characters, Rooney has forged a reputation as the camp joker. But let us not forget that it was his idea to lead a party of players to Auschwitz wearing dark clothes as a mark of respect.

That he will start against Ukraine is a given. Andy Carroll will make way as Rooney and Danny Welbeck reprise their Manchester United partnership which yielded an astonishing 33 goals in 22 starts last season. If they can reproduce anything like that form at international level and the defence stops doing an impression of four men trying to stand up in a canoe, then England have every chance of booking a place in the last eight.

It doesn’t say much about the national mood or the quality of the England squad that in most people’s pre-tournament minds, qualifying from the group would have represented a reasonable achievement. Rooney insists he is setting his sights far higher than that and, if he can combine his new found maturity with a long overdue starring role at a major tournament, there is perhaps no reason why we shouldn’t too.