By Kristian Balkin
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You could have predicted, with the weight of a not-so-flattering history on their shoulders, that England would not make beating Sweden easy for themselves. At the interval, 1-0 up, there was a distinct sense of security to Hodgson and his men but as the second half commenced it quickly evaporated into the evening air of Kiev. That stability never returned to England’s play but it was replaced by something considerably more potent and, at the risk of contradicting the supposed mantra of Hodgson, entertaining.
It wasn’t a fluid style of football that would perhaps be more suited to the likes Cesc Fabregas and the quite incredibly talented Andres Iniesta, but it was an ever-so-English resilience that bred something close to urgency. There were histrionics and, amid the hype, a lack of structure that you would never relate to a team coached by someone like Hodgson but, ultimately, the palpable doggedness displayed here against these tricky Scandinavian opponents led to the heady belief that, despite not possessing a team of golden qualities, England have something in reserve that is just as creditable: a sense of adventure.
The adventure started early on with Andy Carroll proving just why his manager had handed him the opportunity to cause Olof Mellberg the problems that, maybe, a diminutive Danny Welbeck would not have been capable of doing on his own accord. The Liverpool forward met a perfectly placed Steven Gerrard cross with a header that seemed to mute all the criticisms he has received throughout this past year. His neck muscles stretched emphatically as he leant into the ball and his celebration was similarly dogmatic.
It must be noted, however, that while he had got the better of the Sweden defence on this occasion, Mellberg, a former Aston Villa stalwart of some of their more prosperous years, was a quite superior player throughout the night. He recalled his more gracious years as if he were in his twenties once again and you had to doubt, at times, why he was ever allowed to leave the shores of Britain with quite such haste.
His team relied upon similar instincts as they began to haunt the Three Lions once again but the introduction of Theo Walcott, thrown into the ring on the side of a battered, depleted unit that was quite clearly bereft of both creativity and organisation, managed to instigate something of a revival. He used his palpable speed and ingenuity to put fear into Erik Hamren and his Sweden defence and England, finally, appeared to be taking the game to their, it must be said, easily beatable opponents.
Welbeck rounded off the tie with the deftest of touches past an otherwise sturdy Andreas Isaksson and a sigh of relief could be heard and felt throughout England. The collective satisfaction came from quite a sincere belief that the England of old would not have stood up to the test at 2-1 down and, once again, we would be staring down the barrel of disappointment and considering our next move in the seemingly insurmountable game of chess that is international football.
Instead, though, the reign of Hodgson is strengthened yet again and the doubters take a role in a now vast minority. Even the quite agreeable portrayal of this new England as a vacuous outfit was challenged with a certain strength of force that was, admittedly, quite brilliantly influenced by Arsenal’s Walcott.
What the subsequent victory here in the Ukraine has done, though, more than anything, is reinforced the standing of Hodgson and his ideologies and proved that, even though pragmatic, well drilled teams are a particularly strong area of his expertise, he is not afraid to let his teams push forward and progress.
The inclusion of Carroll was a masterstroke, as was the introduction of Walcott – without both of whom, this would have been an entirely different affair. Sweden clearly had the quite substantial ability of causing England some quite significant problems and when they took the lead it was quite obvious that they were prepared to battle beyond all reasonable means to retain their place, and dignity, in this competition.
England had a competitive edge too, though, and theirs won outright in the end. The adventure, it seems, is only just beginning.
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