REUTERS - England’s Euro 2012 squad, regarded by critics as one of their poorest at a major tournament, secured a place in the last eight on Tuesday and extended their unbeaten run under Roy Hodgson to five games.
A laboured 1-0 win that secured top spot in Group D and eliminated co-hosts Ukraine, built on the foundations of another solid if uninspiring defensive display, endorsed Hodgson’s self-confessed pragmatic approach to his new job.
Unsurprisingly, captain Steven Gerrard revealed growing confidence in the team, after sealing a quarter-final clash with Italy in Kiev on Sunday. “No-one believed in us at the start, but we’re gaining momentum at the right time,” he said.
“We’ve been criticised in the past maybe for not turning up, underperforming and we can take that... We’re man enough... But when you get criticised, it’s not nice and you have to react.”
He did not raise two fingers at the critics but the feeling was understood, if not articulated. This England, building confidence and belief, will now take some beating.
If the sound of words being eaten in some quarters of the British media was not echoing around the Donbass Arena, the clearly-demonstrated excellence of England’s goalkeeper and his back four was causing reappraisals of their prospects.
In Joe Hart, England have a number one who is emerging as one of the best at the finals and in the dependable, astute and experienced John Terry a centre-back of similarly high quality.
That left-back Ashley Cole was making an England record 21st major tournament appearance, one more than former captains Peter Shilton and David Beckham, as he won his 97th cap aged 31, also underlined the experience in the England defence.
Cole and Terry, of course, were key players in Chelsea’s progress and final triumph over Bayern Munich in the Champions League last month, another feat achieved with meticulous planning and remarkable defending.
Both right back Glen Johnson, felt by some pundits to be a controversial selection ahead of Hart’s Premier League title-winning Manchester City team mate Micah Richards, and his club colleague Joleon Lescott also performed admirably.
For this, much credit should go to the unsung Hodgson, who also overlooked the media-fanned claims of Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand for a call-up when another Chelsea defender, Gary Cahill was injured, preferring not to ruffle any feathers.
That resolution in his thinking, and courage in ignoring the lure of populism, was manifested clearly in Tuesday’s performance, notably when Terry ran back to clear off the line when Ukraine thought they had equalised in the second half.
His tenacity was an example to the team as they hung on to a slender lead secured when striker Wayne Rooney marked his return from a two-game suspension with an opportunist headed goal from close range at the far post after 48 minutes.
That breakthrough, after a first half mostly controlled by Ukraine, came courtesy of one of many mistakes at the back by the home side when a Gerrard cross took two deflections and was missed by goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov en route to Rooney.
The hapless Pyatov also flapped at the ball on several other occasions when his defence wobbled, a sight that contrasted vividly with a general sense of calm organisation at the other end where Hart radiates confidence.
Playing this way may not make England easy on the eye, but their brand of industrial football could become more polished and make Hodgson’s contenders feared by their rivals starting with Italy who they face in the quarter-finals on Sunday.